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I inform the House that I have not selected the reasoned amendment.
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
I see two or more new faces on the Opposition Front Bench this afternoon, and I want to begin my congratulating my new opposite number, Ms Eagle, on her appointment. She is certainly no stranger to Westminster;
when she was first elected, I was just out of university. I believe that today marks the first time that our paths have crossed at the Dispatch Box, but I have long admired her skills as a parliamentarian and I look forward to working with her in the months ahead. I wish her all the very best.
I also want to take this opportunity to pay tribute to Mr Umunna. We disagreed on many things, except our choice of haircut, but it was always a pleasure to debate with him and I am sure that he will continue to serve and represent his constituents with the passion and dedication that he repeatedly showed at the Dispatch Box.
I am also delighted to welcome the new Leader of the Opposition, Jeremy Corbyn, to the Front Bench. I congratulate him on his resounding victory in the election and wish him the very best of luck in his new role. He and I have two things in common, Mr Speaker. The first is that you will never catch either of us trying to eat a bacon sandwich. The second is that, like Members on both sides of the House, we both came into politics because we wanted to leave the world a better place than we found it. Obviously, you could put a rather large piece of cigarette paper between our ideas on how to achieve that, but his goal is the same as mine: a society that is fairer, more transparent and more just, in which the needs of the many are not outweighed by the wants of a few.
That is wishful thinking by the new Leader of the Opposition.
Since the industrial revolution, Britain’s trade unions have done much to help to deliver that fairer society that I was describing. They have helped to secure higher wages, safer workplaces and stronger employee rights. They have fought for social justice and campaigned for freedom and democracy, and they have supplied the House with some of its most eloquent and influential Members, including Leaders of the Opposition.
Unions helped my father when he first worked in the cotton mills. They helped him again when a whites-only policy threatened to block him from becoming a bus driver. Just as the workplace has evolved and improved since that time, so the trade unions and the laws that govern them have developed too. I hope that, in 2015, no one would argue for the return of the closed shop, the show-of-hands votes in dimly lit car parks or the wildcat walk-outs enforced by a handful of heavies.
That is why the Labour Government repealed not a single piece of union legislation during their 13 years in power. Now it is time for Britain’s unions to take the next step, and the Bill will help to achieve just that.
The Secretary of State is pretending that the Bill is about democracy rather than being a vindictive attack on working people. If it is really about democracy and opening things up, why is he not lifting the ban on unions balloting online and in the workplace, which would be precisely the way to make a modern democracy work?
The hon. Lady will see that democracy and accountability are at the heart of the Bill—[Interruption.] She will see that a lot more clearly as I make progress with my opening remarks.
Despite what people may have read in some reports, this Bill is not a declaration of war on the trade union movement. It is not an attempt to ban industrial action. It is not an attack on the rights of working people. It will not force strikers to seek police approval for their slogans or their tweets. It is not a reprise of Prime Minister Clement Attlee sending in troops to break up perfectly legal stoppages. It is simply the latest stage in the long journey of modernisation and reform. It will put power in the hands of the mass membership; bring much-needed sunlight to dark corners of the movement; and protect the rights of everyone in this country—those who are union members and those who are not, and those hard-working men and women who are hit hardest by industrial action.
If this Bill was to be supported by the workers generally, some trade unions would already have given it support. This Bill is opposed by all those unions affiliated to the Labour movement and all those not affiliated to the Labour movement—even the Royal College of Nursing has said no to this Bill. It is a travesty and an intrusion upon the democracy of the workplace—get rid of it!
I am glad the hon. Gentleman has been able to get that off his chest. He will know, first, that the British people voted for this Bill at the general election and, secondly, that opinion poll after opinion poll has shown broad support for the measures we are discussing today.
There is a new Business Secretary in this Government and he is the one presenting this Bill.
Hon. Members from both sides of this House are, to some extent, insulated from the consequences of strike action. We are lucky enough to have generous travel expenses so that we can hire a car or a taxi when there is a transport strike. We have secure jobs, where we get paid whether we make it into the office or not. Even a Back Bencher is among the top 5% of UK earners, so we can afford to deal with the childcare costs that might come with a school closure or some disruption. But what about the low-paid restaurant staff who miss a day’s work and a day’s pay because of a stoppage called by a handful of transport workers? What about the self-employed builder who has to turn down a week-long job because a strike by teachers means that his kids cannot go to school? What about the single mother who cannot afford to lose a day’s pay by refusing to cross a picket line? Should she be subjected to abuse and harassment simply for going to work?
There is absolutely no relationship between check-off and bank accounts. Anyone who is able to take advantage of check-off must have a bank account in order to receive their salary in the first place.
I also want to talk about the impact on taxpayers, who have to fund the salaries of public servants, only for those public servants to spend their time on trade union business. Do taxpayers not have a right at least to know what their taxes are being spent on? These are the people who are not represented in current trade union legislation, and by increasing transparency, fairness and democracy, they are the people that this Bill will protect. [Interruption.]
That is outrageous. Have a bit of dignity.
On this issue of consistency, if the trade unions are going to have to pay for the enhanced services of the certification officer, does the Secretary of State believe that Members of Parliament should pay for the costs of our regulator, the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority?
The hon. Gentleman will know that the certification officer is the regulator for trade unions, and it is perfectly usual for the regulator to be paid for by those whom they regulate.
Does the Secretary of State agree that modern unions are at their best when they work with employers to get more skills, better training, higher quality work and better paid jobs, and that strikes are deeply damaging to the interests of the employees as well as the employers?
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. At the heart of this Bill is partnership—partnership between trade unions and employers and other stakeholders. A great example of that can be seen at Toyota in Britain. It has not had one day of industrial action in 20 years, and that is because of the partnership that it rightly has with its trade union.
The Secretary of State is giving the House the impression that London commuters would somehow be protected by his threshold. Is he aware that the recent industrial action on the tube would have passed those thresholds? He talks about partnership. Is it not the case that it is not the strikes and the ballots that are the problems, but the intransigent Mayor of London who is sitting behind him?
I am coming on to thresholds, but the hon. Gentleman’s point proves that this is not some kind of ban on industrial action. Strike action can rightly still take place where there is clear support from the membership of the union.
Let me move on to thresholds. The whole point of strikes is to cause disruption, but the impact of industrial action on ordinary people—often the very working people whom unions were created to support—is such that it should ever be used only as a last resort. It should be taken only after the explicit backing of a majority of members. That is why this Bill sets a minimum turnout of 50% for industrial action ballots. If 1,000 union members are being asked to participate in a strike, at least 500 of them must vote for the ballot to be valid.
I will give way in a moment. In addition, strikes in certain public services will need the support of 40% of those eligible to vote. In our hypothetical 1,000-strong union, a successful ballot will require at least 500 votes to be cast with at least 400 of those being in favour.
Despite the Secretary of State’s fine words about the trade union movement at the beginning, does he not realise that what he is saying about what this Tory Government are doing is a continuous Tory vendetta against the trade union movement? He should be thoroughly ashamed that he is bringing in this Bill and, just as in 1927, it will be a future Labour Government who will ensure that this rubbish is destroyed and that trade unions are given back their basic freedoms.
There was a time when Labour used to be the party of working people. We have seen evidence already this afternoon that it has given up on ordinary, hard-working people.
“The message must be simple—Cameron, we are going to take you down. If this goes into law, we want mass co-ordinated strike action.”
Does that further underline the importance of getting this Bill into place?
What that highlights is that, sadly, there are some trade union leaders who do not care about their members. They care about their own narrow interests and not the interests of their members or other hard-working people.
I will give way in a moment. I also wish to highlight the additional requirement for ballots of staff in six key sectors: the health service, the fire service, border security and nuclear decommissioning—because of the obvious risks to public safety and security—and education and transport. A ballot is required because of the massive disproportionate disruption that stoppages in those areas can cause.
What is the appropriate word to describe it when a person who feels that they have been dealt with unjustly seeks to withdraw their labour and is forced to work against their will?
I have already addressed the hon. Gentleman’s concern. This is not a ban on strike action. This is about ensuring that our rules are modern and right and fit for today’s workplace.
We have consulted on which occupations within those sectors should be subject to the additional 40% support threshold. The consultation closed last week and we are now reviewing the results. We will publish the Government’s response and details of the scope of the 40% threshold by the time the Bill is in Committee in the other place. As I have said, these measures will not make strikes illegal or impossible. If union leaders can make a genuine and compelling case to their members, they will have no problem securing the votes required. I believe that the vast majority of industrial action is unfortunate and unnecessary, but it is important that workers are able to go on strike. If union members truly want to do so, I will not stand in their way.
First, as I hope the hon. Gentleman knows, in a general election the electorate do not face a binary choice. Secondly, everyone affected by the result of a general election has the right to vote. When a union votes on industrial action, only its members have the right to vote. Therefore, it is absolutely right that there should be a clear, effective mandate.
My right hon. Friend was absolutely right to have a consultation on the additional 40% hurdle. He has talked about it in reference to the emergency services and other important services, but does he not agree that there is another issue: if we compare changes in strike action in the public and private sectors since the end of the last century, we see that over that 15-year period the number of strike days in the private sector has halved, but in the public sector the number has doubled?
I will give way in a moment, but first I will make some progress, because many hon. Members wish to speak in the debate.
It is also important that any industrial action reflects the current will of union members. As things stand, that is not always the case. Union leaders can secure a mandate for industrial action and then keep using it for as long as they please. For example, in October 2013 the NASUWT justified a walk-out by citing a mandate acquired in November 2011, almost two years earlier. That is hardly a constructive approach to industrial relations.
Does the right hon. Gentleman not recognise that the reason the Opposition object to the Bill is that when people choose to go on strike they get only a tiny bit of strike pay, not their proper pay? They have responsibilities and families to support, so nobody goes on strike just for the hell of it; they do so because they need to.
I think that the hon. Lady will therefore agree with the changes we are proposing today. She is right that strikes should always be a last resort—I think that is the point she is making. If union members wish to take strike action, they will vote for it and meet the proposed thresholds.
Does the Secretary of State agree that one of the problems with the unions using historical mandates is that, because time has elapsed, many of the employees who voted for strike action may have retired or moved employment in the meantime?
That is exactly the point I am coming on to.
When old mandates are used, it is not fair on union members. As my hon. Friend said, a two-year-old mandate is unlikely to reflect the latest negotiations and would fail to reflect changes in the workforce. To ensure that any industrial action is based on a current mandate from current members, the Bill provides a four-month validity period after a ballot result is announced.
Is my right hon. Friend not showing with this legislation, once again, that the Conservative Government are standing up for people who want to work and against bullies who want to stop them. That is what fundamentally underlies his approach?
I thank my hon. Friend for highlighting how the Bill protects the rights of working people across the country when they are affected by strike action that has no proper mandate.
I must plough on, but I will give way later.
The Bill provides that voting papers sent to union members and employers will state the details of the trade dispute, exactly what type of industrial action is proposed, and an indication of the time period in which that action will take place. This will ensure that members know exactly what they are voting for or against and allow them to make an informed decision.
One of the valuable roles performed by unions over the years has been to defend workers from abuse, bullying and harassment at the hands of managers. There is no place for such behaviour in the modern workplace, and I applaud anyone who stands up against it. But bosses are not the only culprits. The independent Carr report contained shocking accounts of appalling bullying and harassment directed at non-strikers by trade union members. There were threats that included details of where workers’ children go to school, and abusive text messages warning, “We know where you live.” Photographs of non-strikers were posted online in a bid to shame them. Workers who had failed to support industrial action reported being punished by colleagues who deliberately saddled them with antisocial shift patterns or isolated them in the workplace.
It is not acceptable for managers to harass and abuse trade union members who take lawful industrial action. Nor is it acceptable for strikers to treat those who choose to work in the same way. While such abuses are doubtless the actions of a tiny minority of trade unionists, they should never be allowed to happen without consequences. The Bill makes it clear that such intimidation has no place in the modern workplace.
Is it not the case that this is just another instance of the Tory party no longer being on the side of people’s rights? There are no more rights. There is no longer a right to social security, legal aid or access to employment tribunals. The Conservative party is becoming much more authoritarian and Labour Members do not like it. It is no longer the party of rights. It used to have a fine tradition of rights, but that is disappearing.
My hon. Friend highlights an important point. It reflects the fact that, unfortunately, public sector unions seem to have more leaders who do not want to represent the views of their members and will take strike action without a full and proper mandate.
I must move on.
The code of practice on picketing, which is already followed without difficulty by many unions, requires the appointment of a picket supervisor. The Bill will make that a statutory obligation. It does not add any new requirement that is not already in the code. The supervisor must either attend the picket line or be readily contactable by the union and the police and able to attend at short notice, and he or she must wear an armband or other means to identify them in order to ensure that picketing is peaceful and lawful.
In addition, we consulted over the summer on other measures to tackle wider intimidation. The consultation closed last Wednesday and we are considering whether the Bill should contain further provisions. We will set out our views on that consultation in due course.
I assume the hon. Gentleman is referring to e-balloting, but I am concerned about fraud and that the identities of people voting in a secret ballot may be revealed. In fact, the Speaker’s Commission on Digital Democracy, which looked at the use of digital apparatus in elections, also shared those concerns. I do not think it would have been appropriate to suggest such changes.
Let me turn to political funds. The introduction of ballot thresholds will help ensure that unions reflect the will of their whole membership and that the views of every member count. Another way we are going to achieve that is through changes to the way in which political funds are managed.
The Secretary of State discounts e-balloting because of potential fraud. How about considering an amendment to the Bill with regards to balloting in the workplace, where there cannot be any fraud whatsoever? It will be democratised and there will be a huge turnout on every occasion, which is surely what the Secretary of State is seeking to implement.
I have clearly set out my concerns and we propose to make no change to the way in which ballots are carried out.
On political funds, first we will increase transparency on the way in which political funds are spent, helping members to make an informed decision about whether or not they want to contribute. The Bill places a duty on unions to report in greater detail on what annual expenditure over £2,000 is useful, helping members decide whether or not they want to pay into the fund. After all, freedom to choose without having all the facts is no freedom at all.
Secondly, unions will need to obtain the active consent of members to deduct a political levy. At present, members can, in theory, opt out, although many unions do not even tell new members that the political levy exists, let alone about them having to pay for it.
Labour is in hoc to and funded by the unions—[Interruption.] That is why Labour Members are making howls of protest. Is not it a fundamental right that people’s pay packets should not be interfered with, without them knowing exactly where the money and the dues are going? That is what this Bill seeks to achieve.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. That money belongs to hard-working people. They should know exactly what is being done with it and that is at the heart of the proposal. In fact, in Northern Ireland, members have had an active choice for almost 90 years and their unions are still perfectly able to operate and to organise. The National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers and the Prison Officers Association still have more than four fifths of their members choosing to opt in. All we are asking is for a simple tick box on the same membership forms in England, Scotland and Wales.
My union, Community, has used the political fund to challenge Governments of all colours and even took the last Labour Government to the European Court and won on behalf of its members. Does the Secretary of State accept that the political fund is not just about putting money into political parties, but about holding the Government of the day to account?
I therefore hope that the hon. Gentleman will agree with the changes, because they support union members and will introduce more transparency. They will still allow the unions to raise the funds, but they will just have to be more open about how they do so and what they do with them.
John Redwood said earlier that when unions and employers work together, results are achieved. That being the case, why does the Secretary of State want to overrule agreements made freely between unions and public sector employees about the appropriate amount of time that should be spent on union duties?
Does my right hon. Friend agree that this is a simple matter of transparency? If people want to give money to the Labour party as union members, they should choose to do so. Indeed, if they do not actually choose to do so, the danger is that the unions are arguably guilty of mis-selling, because people do not know what they are buying when they join up for membership of a trade union.
My hon. Friend puts it very eloquently. This is an issue of transparency. It is about ensuring that when people, rightly, give money to any political party, they know that they are doing so and do it with their eyes wide open.
I thank the Secretary of State for giving away again. If this is about transparency, what about the hedge funds and big business, which donate fortunes to the Conservative party? Will legislation be put in place covering the need to ask shareholders and the workforce whether such donations can be made? That’s transparency.
I think the hon. Gentleman actually agrees with the rules that apply to businesses. When businesses make a political donation to whatever party, they rightly have to declare it and must be open and transparent. They often need the votes of their shareholders. These rules are absolutely consistent with that. The hon. Gentleman is surely not saying that there should be no transparency here.
The hon. Lady will know that businesses or individuals have to declare it when they make a donation. It has to be transparent. All businesses have to declare their donations and will often have to get the permission of their shareholders. In public companies, those shareholders will receive a vote. These changes are entirely consistent with that. We are saying that if someone is a union member, they should know that some of their money is going towards political purposes. It should be open and transparent. That is not the case in England, Scotland and Wales. It is the case in Northern Ireland. If it works in Northern Ireland, it can work in the rest of the United Kingdom.
Turning to check-off, as the Minister for the Cabinet Office and Paymaster General has announced, a proposed amendment to the Bill will seek to end the practice by which union subscriptions are processed through payroll in public sector organisations. The so-called check-off system was created in a time before direct debits existed and serves no purpose in the modern workplace. It has already been abolished across Whitehall. The amendment will extend this modernising step to the rest of the taxpayer-funded workforce.
I respect Britain’s working men and women. I believe that they are perfectly capable of deciding for themselves whether they wish to support their union’s political activity and they are perfectly capable of paying their union subscriptions themselves. To suggest otherwise is to say that Britain’s union members are too lazy to set up a direct debit or too stupid to make a decision about politics. That is patronising in the extreme.
In the past few weeks, the Labour party has shown that it is possible actively to recruit hundreds of thousands of members to a support a cause and that it is possible to get hard-working men and women to hand over their hard-earned money to back an idea that they believe in. Not one of Labour’s new members signed up by mistake because they failed to tick a box. Not one of the registered supporters was required to pay their £3 through their employer’s payroll. Every new recruit to the Labour party made an active decision to participate. If the party born of the unions can achieve that, surely the unions themselves can do the same?
This is an issue about check-off, not auto-enrolment. Several Whitehall Departments have already begun the process to remove check-off, and now we will apply that process to all parts of the public sector.
On facility time, the Government have a moral duty to ensure that taxpayers get maximum value for money out of every penny they provide the Exchequer. With that in mind, it is hard to justify paying a public servant to do a vital job, only for them to spend their day working for another employer. Yet this is exactly what is happening in the public sector today.
Before I came to this place, I was a public sector worker—a home help—and an elected trade union official for a public service, after more than 200,000 members voted for me, and I can tell the Secretary of State that the work I did saved my local authority 10 times what I was paid in facility time. Does he agree that the Bill is anti-business and anti-working practice and that most employers that have trade unions recognise their value?
I wholeheartedly disagree with the hon. Lady. There is nothing wrong with an employee doing union work, but it should be open and transparent.
I should emphasise that point: we are saving £17 million a year because of the transparency we have introduced into the civil service. It will no doubt have a similar impact on the rest of the public sector.
There are nurses, teachers and other public servants being paid a salary by the taxpayer while working for their union under the banner of facility time. There is no transparency around how much time they spend on union work and no controls in place to ensure that the taxpayer is getting value for money. It is a situation that most ordinary Britons, including many dedicated public servants I have spoken to, find absolutely baffling. That is why civil service Departments are already required to publish information about the use of facility time by their staff. The Bill allows the Government to make regulations extending that to all public sector employers. It will include information about an employer’s spending on trade union duties and activities and about how many of its union representatives spend a specified percentage of their time on their union role. We have already made considerable savings for the taxpayer by requiring Departments to publish this information, as we have just heard from my hon. Friend James Heappey. However, if transparency alone does not lead to further savings, the Bill also grants Ministers the power to set a cap on the time and money spent on facility time.
It is good enough for all sectors. There is nothing wrong with facility time—the Bill is clear about that—but it should be open and transparent, and the current rules do not ensure that.
Why have the Government not consulted the devolved Administrations and local authorities across the UK about facility time? They would tell him about its benefits, because these employers and organisations see the benefits of facility time.
I am a bit baffled by the hon. Gentleman’s question because there are three consultations that relate to the Bill. The main consultation is a nine-week consultation and it is open to every stakeholder in the United Kingdom, including those in Scotland.
Finally, the Bill enhances the role of the certification officer—a role that has served workers, unions and employers well over the past 40 years. It equips the certification officer with appropriate new powers for a modern regulator, such as allowing investigations to begin based on information from a variety of sources, without having to wait for specific complaints from union members.
For the first time, the certification officer will have the ability to impose financial penalties on unions that do not comply with statutory requirements—the very requirements that Parliament has deemed necessary. The Bill passes the cost of that regulation on to the unions. That is entirely in line with modern best practice. It is why banks fund the Financial Conduct Authority and why utility regulators are paid for by utility firms.
The right hon. Gentleman is being very generous in giving way. I understand what he is trying to do with the Bill, but it makes some of us rather uneasy. That is true of the provisions on the certification officer who, hitherto, has been seen by both sides—I speak as someone who was a partner in a law firm with 1,000 employees, so I do know a bit about this—as a neutral arbiter or referee. The Bill politicises the role and, to the trade union side, appears to put the certification officer on one side of the divide, rather than keeping them as a neutral arbiter.
The hon. Gentleman should be assured that if that were the case, we would not have brought these changes forward. The certification officer’s role remains that of a neutral regulator, independent of Government—that will not change. What will change is the transparency, some of the powers that the officer has to carry out their duties and the way the officer is paid for. Just like other regulators, they will be paid for by the people they regulate and be independent.
“politically motivated men who…failed to secure acceptance of their views by the British electorate, but who are…forcing great hardship on the members of the union and their families, and endangering the security of the industry and the economic welfare of the nation.”—[Hansard, 20 June 1966; Vol. 730, c. 42-43.]
Since then, successive reforms have helped to modernise the union movement. Now, it is time to take the next step: to embrace the transparency that modern society demands of business and politics; to embrace the democracy that is at the heart of what makes Britain great; and to focus on the needs and demands of union members, rather than the views and ambitions of union leaders.
In our manifesto, we pledged to deliver further union reforms, and at the general election, that manifesto secured the clear acceptance of the British people. This is not about the Government versus the unions or the workers versus the bosses. It is about creating a modern legislative framework for modern industrial relations; about making unions partners in the workplace; and about ensuring that a handful of militants cannot force great hardship on their members and on the public, or endanger the economic welfare of the nation.
I started today by talking about how unions were instrumental in consigning the dark satanic mills to the history books, but the workplace of the 21st century is very different from that of the 18th century. The way in which union members work has changed. Now, it is time for the way in which trade unions work to change too. The Bill will make that change happen, and I commend it to the House.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Before we proceed with this important debate, I wonder whether you will clarify the rules regarding Members declaring their interests. There have been many interventions by Members who have received significant donations from or are paid by trade unions. As the debate proceeds, people who are watching our proceedings will want to know the reason why people are taking part.
There should be no requirement for clarification because the hon. Gentleman is an experienced denizen of this House. He will know that there is an opportunity to declare in the register any relevant interests, and that it is the responsibility of each Member to declare in the way that he or she thinks is necessary for the House to be informed.
Order. The hon. Gentleman must calm himself. I feel sure that this will be a separate point of order, as no further point of order is required. On that assumption, I will hear the hon. Gentleman.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Since reference has been made to the funding of political parties, should Government Members who have a shareholding in a hedge fund or a company that has supplied resources to the Conservative party also make a declaration?
I fear that an undesirable trend has been started by the hon. Gentleman, no doubt with great innocence of public purpose, but we will not persist further. I stand by what I have said: the opportunity exists to make a declaration in the register, and Members must declare as they think appropriate, if and when they come to speak in the Chamber. There is nothing new about that; it is well established. I call Angela Eagle.
Third time lucky, Mr Speaker.
I thank the Secretary of State for his gracious welcome, and especially for the timing of today’s Second Reading debate on this Bill, which he has arranged for maximum convenience. I hope he will continue to be so accommodating as we go forward and I oppose him from the Dispatch Box.
Let me begin by drawing the attention of the House to my entries in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests which, in the interests of transparency, I declared earlier than was technically necessary. I was especially pleased to win the nominations of Unison, the Union of Construction, Allied Trades and Technicians, the Communication Workers Union, the Transport Salaried Staffs Association and the recommendation of Unite in the recent contest to be deputy leader of the Labour party—hon. Members can see where that got me. As the register shows, my campaign was supported by donations in cash and kind from some of the unions affiliated to the Labour party.
I also want to make a second declaration: I am a lifelong and proud trade unionist. I believe in social partnership at work, and that the right of trade unions to exist and represent their members at work is a key liberty in any democracy. I am dismayed that we have a Government who believe in attacking trade unions, rather than working with them in the spirit of social partnership to improve economic efficiency and productivity in our country.
My hon. Friend will know that in recent years, the average trade unionist has been on strike for one day in 15 years. In sharp contrast, the export of goods last month was down to its lowest level since 2010. Does she agree that the focus should be on collaboration across industry and trade unions to raise productivity and wages, whereas the Bill will get people on the streets and force conflict?
May I declare that I am a proud trade unionist and was a full-time trade union official for more than 10 years? Does my hon. Friend agree that the
Bill’s real agenda is to stop public sector workers speaking out against this Government’s attacks on their pay and conditions?
It is impossible not to agree with my hon. Friend, and it saddens me beyond words that we are here today dealing with the most significant sustained and partisan attack on 6 million trade union members and their workplace organisations that we have seen in this country in the past 30 years. With the number of days lost to strike action down 90% in the past 20 years, there is no need whatsoever to employ the law in this draconian way.
I welcome my hon. Friend to her new position. She says, rightly, that the number of days lost to strikes in the UK is at its lowest for 20 years. It is even more significant than that: we lose fewer days to strike action in the UK today than we did during the second world war. There is no problem here that needs fixing.
Again, I agree wholeheartedly with the comments of my hon. Friend.
Does the hon. Lady have a message for people in London trying to get to work or students trying to get to schools or colleges on the tube? Does she think each one of those strikes was right and necessary, and what is her advice to the travelling public?
My message is that the Mayor should start doing his job and help to respond to the dispute.
There is no necessity to employ the law in this draconian way, especially when this country already has the most restrictive trade union laws in Europe. The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, the trade group for the human resources sector, has criticised the Bill as an “outdated response” to today’s challenges, commenting that the
“Government proposals seem to be targeting yesterday’s problem instead of addressing the reality of modern workplaces”.
Does the hon. Lady not find it amazing that 99% of the time the Conservatives go on about regulation and red tape in business and the workplace? What are they trying to do now but introduce regulation and red tape unseen in Germany, Norway or other major economies of Europe? This is just a symptom of low-pay Britain.
I shall come on to the smothering of trade union administration in what I will call “blue tape” later in my speech. I agree with the hon. Gentleman and I hope that he will join us in the Lobby tonight to vote against the Bill.
I agree with my hon. Friend that trade unions are central to democracy and that we already have some of the most restrictive trade union legislation in the world—and the Bill will make it worse. Does she agree that the Government’s proposals are a threat to the security of our country because they threaten democracy?
I will come on to aspects of that, but it is important that we do not discount the attacks on democracy contained in the Bill, including the sinister attack on freedoms that many of us have taken for granted, perhaps for too long.
I declare my interests: I am sponsored by trade unions—the cleanest money in British politics and far cleaner than on the other side of the House. Does my hon. Friend agree that on Sky News yesterday Mr Davis described elements of the Bill as like something out of Franco’s dictatorship?
Great minds obviously think alike, and I may well come back to that issue later in my speech.
I declare an interest: I am a proud member of Unite the union and I have been since the miners’ strike. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is remarkable that 77% of the public believe that trade unions defend important aspects of workers’ rights and that we need them?
It is wise to remember that trade unions defend not only their own members. Over the years, trade unions have created a process that has given us holidays, weekends and reasonable working hours. It is right that the benefits that trade unions bring to our society are recognised and extended to those who are not members of trade unions but happen to be at work. Any attack on those rights that weakens those powers threatens the progress made over many years in democracy at work.
My hon. Friend mentioned the CIPD, and it is not only the usual suspects who oppose this Bill—there are some unlikely bedfellows because the Bill goes beyond party politics. As we have heard, Mr Davis called it redolent of Franco’s Spain. The Secretary of State pooh-poohed Vince Cable, the former Business Secretary, for calling it “vindictive”. A letter has been signed by 100 academics, mostly from business schools which are not usually seen as hotbeds of radicalism in our country. Will independent-minded Conservatives join us and our new leader in the Lobby tonight to oppose this draconian legislation?
I would like to live in a world in which the Tory party did not have this kind of blood lust against trade unions, but alas we are not there yet.
I congratulate Ms Eagle on her promotion. She works hard in the north-west.
“We will support all demonstrations in Parliament or on the picket line”— against the Bill—
“We will be with you at every stage. It is not often you have heard that from a Labour MP but you are hearing it now.”
Does the shadow Business Secretary agree with that?
I agree with the right to demonstrate. I thought we were living in a free country.
The Bill is draconian, vindictive and counterproductive. It is:
“very provocative, highly ideological and has no evidence base at all”.
Those are not my words; they are the words of Vince Cable, the right hon. Gentleman’s predecessor as Business Secretary in the previous Government. He has a very revealing insight into the mindset of the Conservative party, the people he was in coalition with for five years, which has concocted the Bill.
“When we were in government, the Tories were constantly pressing for more aggressive trade union legislation of the type we see…They see the trade unions and the Labour party as the enemy. The question then is how do you weaken them? That is their starting point.”
This is the prism through which we have to see the proposals before us today. Forget the blabber from the Secretary of State; this is the prism through which we have to judge these proposals.
I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend on her elevation.
The Bill comes straight out of the right-wing playbook of the American Legislative Exchange Council. As Governor of Wisconsin, Scott Walker did exactly the same thing in 2011 and put industrial relations back in that state for a generation. Does my hon. Friend not agree?
More than that, I think the slightly shifty looks on the faces of many Government Members demonstrate that they know they have been found out. They have been rumbled.
It is abundantly clear that, whatever protestations we may have to the contrary, Vince Cable’s analysis explains what is really going on with this disgraceful piece of proposed legislation. Perhaps that is why so few people will defend it. Even Government Ministers will not defend it in public, as this tweet from “Murnaghan” revealed on Sunday:
They do not want to be questioned about it. Like all authoritarians, they just want do it as quickly as possible and brook no dissent.
The right to be part of a trade union to campaign for protection at work is a fundamental socioeconomic right. It is enshrined in the UN’s universal declaration of human rights and the international covenant on civil and political rights.
No. I have given way a lot of times and I am in the middle of the peroration.
Before I was so rudely interrupted, I was just about to say that the Bill rides roughshod over that right. It threatens the basic options that those at work have to safeguard their pay and conditions by standing together to win improvements. Liberty, Amnesty and the British Institute of Human Rights have all said that the Bill’s purpose is to
“undermine the rights of all working people” and amounts to a
“major attack on civil liberties in the UK.”
That warning should not be dismissed lightly by the Conservative party. Workers’ rights to freedom of expression, freedom of assembly and freedom of association are all undermined by the Bill. For example, the requirement forcing workers to disclose media comments to the authorities a week in advance or face a fine and the requirement under clause 9 for picket supervisors to register with the police and wear identifying badges are a dangerous attack on basic liberties that would not be tolerated by the Conservative party if they were imposed on any other section of society.
Remember that it is now known that thousands of people in the building trade have had their livelihoods taken away and their lives ruined by illegal employer blacklisting, a scandal that this Government have failed either to pursue or remedy. The Bill has been criticised for being OTT, with parts of it resembling the dictatorship of General Franco. Those are not my words, either, but the words of that noted Marxist agitator, Mr Davis.
That sinister intent needs to be added to other attempts by the Government to curb dissent in our country today. They have restricted access to justice by imposing fees to access the courts, which are causing the innocent to plead guilty. They want to scrap the Human Rights Act, which safeguards our basic freedoms. Their commitment to transparency in Government is in tatters with their plans to limit freedom of information powers. They have slashed legal aid and introduced employment tribunal fees, which deny women the chance to sue for equal pay or defend themselves against sexual harassment. They have limited the scope for judicial review and used their gagging law to bully charities into silence at the election, and now they are trying to silence the trade union voice through a tax on the existence of political funds, which finance general non-party political campaigning as well as the Labour party.
This is another gagging Bill, and those of us who care for the health of our democracy and civil society are united in opposing it. Clauses 2 and 3 are deliberately designed to undermine the bargaining power of trade unions by requiring minimum turnouts, thresholds and support before a strike ballot is valid. The new proposals demand a mandate for unions that breaks the democratic conventions of our society by counting votes not cast as essentially no votes.
More than half of the Cabinet would not have met that arbitrary threshold had it applied to their election to this House in May. Why do the Government have different standards for democracy and trade unions than anywhere else in our society? Clause 3 ensures that the 40% level of support restriction will apply to a much bigger list of sectors than the internationally recognised definition of “essential services” and, ominously, allows sectors to be added by secondary legislation that is as yet unpublished. From listening to the Secretary of State, it appears that the Government do not intend to publish it until the Bill is in the Lords.
If the Government are so worried about participation in ballots, why do they not allow e-balloting and secure workplace balloting, which are used routinely by many organisations? Clauses 4 to 6 might more usefully be described as the clauses that smother unions in “blue tape” and the hypocrisy of the Business Secretary in this respect is staggering. In July, he launched his drive to cut red tape, yet when it comes to unions he is increasing the powers of the certification officer and deliberately placing additional information and reporting burdens on unions. Not content with doing that, the Government, through clauses 12 and 13, are reducing the ability of trade union officials to do their jobs with the introduction of new powers to restrict facility time.
It is not hard to come to the conclusion that these proposals have been written to be as unworkable and difficult to comply with as possible. They also create many more opportunities for ballots to be challenged by employers for minor technical reasons. Again, it is clear that the increased risk of employer challenge is an integral part of the Government’s intentions.
Does my hon. Friend recall that throughout the 1980s the working people of this country were lectured about giving managers the right to manage? Management in this country has agreed with trade unions at a local level who should have facility time and what they should do with it. Why should the Government have to intervene to destroy that partnership, which has worked for the benefit of all concerned?
Rather like Don Quixote, they are tilting at windmills, and legislating for an absurd caricature of the reality of industrial relations up and down the country, for partisan purposes. That is why we oppose the Bill.
Clauses 7 and 8 extend the notice requirements for any industrial actions and restrict the effect of any ballot for strike action to four months. These clauses are designed to narrow the effectiveness of any industrial action, even if it has reached the much higher requirements of turnout and support required for clauses 2 and 3. There is no sign of any evidence that could justify these changes and no sign of a clamour for employers to change the existing system. Indeed, these changes may intensify industrial dispute during the four-month period, and make things worse.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for allowing me—unlike the Secretary of State—to intervene. Everyone who heard the Secretary of State’s contribution will know that he cited the example of Northern Ireland, stating that what was good enough for Northern Ireland was good enough for the rest of the country. In particular regard to the political fund, trade union members in Northern Ireland have had to opt in, and that has been the case for over 60 years. Will the hon. Lady clarify what percentage of trade union members in Northern Ireland have opted in to the political fund?
I do not know; perhaps the hon. Lady wants to tell me.
I am most grateful to the hon. Lady. I have enormous regard for her and I congratulate her most sincerely on her appointment to the shadow Front Bench. The answer to the question—I am sure it must have slipped her mind, as she always does her homework before contributing to debates—is 39%. Let me add that it could be to do with the fact that the Labour party never fielded candidates in Northern Ireland. Perhaps under the new leadership, the party might think of rivalling its buddies in Sinn Féin.
We will have to have a chat about whether the Labour party should organise in Northern Ireland. It is a long-standing issue within our party. I would be more than happy to talk to the hon. Lady about that, but I suspect Madam Deputy Speaker would stop me from doing so over the Dispatch Box.
We all know that this Government—barely with a majority—increasingly behave in a grossly partisan way, whether it is through individual electoral registration designed to disenfranchise voters, by introducing English votes for English laws, or now by making changes to party funding to try to hobble the main Opposition.
I suppose so—[Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman has melted my heart.
That is something I thought I would be unable to do; I am grateful that my persistence has paid off. The motivation behind this Bill has nothing to do with the things that the hon. Lady has just mentioned; it is to do with protecting and helping ordinary hard-working people to go about their day-to-day lives and their work unimpeded by strike action, which sometimes has turnouts as low as 16%. It is reasonable to protect them, and I ask the hon. Lady to support that
Disillusion has set in very quickly, I am afraid, with the hon. Gentleman. All I can say is that I am a long-standing member of a trade union, so I know many trade unionists, and I know that very few of them would contemplate being silly enough to have industrial action with very low turnouts and very little support, because that simply does not work.
The Prime Minister used to say he wanted to reform party funding and would limit donations from all sources. Now, however, instead of addressing the big money in politics—and the big issues that are causing disillusionment from politics generally—with millionaire hedge-fund donors being treated to lunches and dinners with the Cabinet, this Government are, outrageously, focusing on curbing only trade union donations. There is an important issue about big money in politics, but it needs to be dealt with on a cross-party basis.
As I was saying, that issue needs to be dealt with on a cross-party basis to change our political system fairly, and not just with the partisan interests of the Tory party in mind.
As the Regulatory Policy Committee has noted, these proposals for changes are rushed, and have had nowhere near the level of consultation that they deserve. The Committee has described the impact assessment as “not fit for purpose”. There are serious questions about whether this Bill is compatible with the international legal obligations of the United Kingdom, as a member of the International Labour Organisation. The ILO has already criticised the UK on a number of occasions for its constraints on the right to strike, and the United Nations special rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association has called for more, not less, trade union freedom in Britain.
I am winding up now.
Given the serious questions about its effect on fundamental rights, the Bill may be open to legal challenge on a number of fronts, including its impact on the devolution settlements, because it covers areas such as health and education that are clearly devolved. The Welsh Government, who have a substantially better record of working constructively with trade unions than this Administration, have objected to the proposals in strong terms, and are considering whether a legislative consent motion might be appropriate.
The Bill is a divisive piece of legislation which undermines the basic protections that trade unions provide for people at work. This is a partisan attack to undermine those unions, and the Labour party, but it will have substantial implications for more than 6 million workers by undermining unions’ ability to stop harassment in the workplace and ensure that the basic health and safety of workers is maintained. The Government are pushing through an agenda of attacking civil society, intimidating charities, threatening basic civil liberties, and undermining access to justice. These draconian measures must be stopped, and I urge the House to deny the Bill a Second Reading.
In the time available to me today, I want to explain why I believe in the importance of workplace representation, and why faith needs to be built into it so that it can expand to help and support workers and move away from being a political plaything. I am a founding member of Unite, by virtue of the merger that caused my Manufacturing, Science and Finance union to become first Amicus and then Unite. I eventually resigned from Unite, because it stopped being a trade union and became a financial cash cow enabling misguided Marxists at the top to play with their members’ lives for their own political fun and games.
A trade union needs to be about much more than just strikes over pay, or Labour party politics. It should be proud of the achievements that it helped to bring about in health and safety law, and of the work that brilliant and dedicated shop stewards do to improve the wellbeing of their members. As a young worker some years ago, I was victimised in the workplace, and there was no union to turn to. I learnt a lot from that. Equally, I have seen shop stewards do fantastic work for those who have faced bullying and victimisation in the workplace. It is often the shop stewards who provide the best example of trade unionism—despite those at the top—but the common factor is frequently their lack of political ambitions, and it is political ambitions that have poisoned the workplace.
Let us consider Grangemouth. Where was the collective bargaining then? There was an attempt to stitch up a Labour selection process caused by the violent actions of a Labour MP in Westminster who was expelled, while all the time the MP’s constituents and the union’s members were left to be exploited and have their pensions destroyed by an unsympathetic employer whom no one stood up to until it was too late.
As in the 1970s, today's unions use hard-working people, through either their money or their work, to try to cause pain to the democratically elected Government because they do not like the verdict of the people. That is a twisted abuse of trade unionism, in which the workers are merely pawns in a wider political game played by some power-crazed leaders whose purpose is usually to disrupt not only the Government but the leadership of the Opposition, against most of its MPs’ will. They always want to call for strikes rather than sensible negotiations, even through those of us who have had normal backgrounds like everyone else, regardless of our party. [Interruption.] Well, I went to a comprehensive school. I know that Labour Members’ new leader went to a public school, but I did not.
Even a founding member of the Labour movement, Robert Blatchford, said:
“A strike is at best a bitter, a painful and a costly thing and no substitute for political action.”
Trade unionism did not start like that. By 1868, the many trade unions had formed the TUC, which had financial plans for sickness, accident and death payments based on contributions—literally the first social security. In his book “Speak for Britain”, Martin Pugh commented:
“Prudent management of union funds won approval from contemporary politicians, but was criticised by socialists”.
He went on to say:
“This was unfair as the Victorian TUC effectively pioneered a political role for workingmen.”
In 1885, with £4 million in the bank, the TUC hesitated in funding 95 working-class MPs as it felt bound to be cautious about introducing political divisions in order properly and honestly to represent all working men. Pugh says:
“They felt incurably suspicious about overtures made by small unrepresentative socialist societies anxious to milk their funds to promote hopeless candidatures.”
But today their funds built by hard-working people have been used for just that.
It is right that the Bill brings in protection for hard-working people who want proper workplace representation rather than just a cash cow to be milked by union leaders for their own political game.
I am interested in the hon. Gentleman’s history lesson, but it is completely wrong because the early trade unions supported the Liberal party rather than socialist candidates. Is he aware that many trade unions have political funds but donate not a single penny to the Labour party? The Minister spoke of union members not having a say, but a ballot on political funds has to be held every 10 years. People can opt out of paying the political levy at any time during their membership.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments. I will talk later about the opt-in and the opt-out, and I think he will listen carefully to what I have to say.
Without employer faith in trade unions we will end up in the situation that culminated in the Grunwick dispute of the late 1970s. I hope that Jack Dromey, for whom I have great respect, will comment on that dispute because I will be fascinated to hear his account of it.
If ever there was an example of where proper, pragmatic workplace representation was needed on both sides, it was in that dispute. There can be no doubt that George Ward exploited his workers and sacked those who spoke out. The problem was that the union movement had become so toxic in the 1970s that the dispute led to a digging in of the trenches and became a symbolic political argument rather than being based on the genuine concerns of workers who were treated like his property and had to work in stifling conditions, without canteen facilities, or the ability to turn down forced overtime.
At the heart of the Grunwick dispute was a bad employer, supported by the Conservative party, who refused to give recognition, despite a court of inquiry chaired by Lord Justice Scarman recommending recognition and reinstatement. That would not now happen because a Labour Government legislated to introduce the right to trade union recognition.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments, because I am coming on to that point. I was about to say that I do not agree with the position my party’s leadership took then, nor the praise that was given to the strike breakers, but I give this warning: my opinions are couched in a life after the trade union reform the hon. Gentleman mentions. I was literally in nappies when the Grunwick affair took place. What it shows is that it is necessary to make sure that relations between workers who need support and the trade unions do not become part of a proxy political battle. I agree with the hon. Gentleman about the need for workplace representation, and I welcome that that rule was brought in.
The popularity among the public and leading politicians of strike breakers was a direct consequence of trade union militancy, using the power of strike action as a political tool, even under a rather left-wing Labour Government, rather than a tool of grievance, so that when strike action was genuinely needed—as I believe it was in that case—the cause and effect were lost in a wider political argument.
We must take this example into consideration, because there is a difference between a public and a private sector dispute. The free market dictates that private companies exist according to supply and demand: if the company sinks, the market will reshape and another company will fill the void, whereas the state is solely responsible for the delivery of key public services. When conditions in the private sector are so bad that a strike has been called, the striking workers will weigh up the consequences to their ongoing conditions. In comparison, a public sector striker will go back to work having lost the day’s pay they were on strike for. They will not face a salary drop, probably will still get a pay rise and will have a very good pension. That is not the case in the private sector, where it can literally mean job losses, unresolved disputes and sometimes worse pay than at the start. After the general strike of 1926, the miners’ pay was worse than at the start. Those are heavy considerations for those in the private sector taking strike action, but those in the public sector do not have to worry about them. I therefore ask the Secretary of State to reconsider the proposals in the Bill to allow private sector companies to employ agency workers during strikes. There are key differences between the services provided by the private and public sectors, and that should be recognised in the Bill.
Public services are paid for by the taxpayer, and they often have terms and conditions of employment beyond the dreams of those working in the private sector. When those in the public sector strike, those in the private sector—whose taxes pay the wages of those on strike—often lose pay themselves owing to a lack of transport or childcare. That is why it is right that thresholds should be set. Such thresholds would not have made a difference to the recent tube strikes, but they would clearly indicate the strength of feeling involved. With the current ease of striking, and the consequences to members’ livelihoods that that involves, it is no wonder that only 14% of those working in the private sector take up union membership, compared with more than 50% of those in the public sector.
No, I want to crack on. I have given way a couple of times, and a lot of people want to speak.
Above all else, the Bill will start the process of restoring faith in the trade union movement so that those in the private sector can feel that they have workplace representation without a militant tendency that could destroy their livelihoods or funding a political party that they do not agree with.
That brings me on to the question of opting into the political levy. How can unions offer independent workplace representation to people who desperately need their help if they are tied to the Labour party by funding it automatically? I accept that this does not apply to every union, but hard-working people’s fees are often used in that way.
As I mentioned earlier, I was a founding member of Unite. I wanted to opt out of the political levy, but it was no easy task, with advice in short supply on how to do it. In the busy workplace, I never got to action this, as my requests were always forgotten or complicated. I helped to support the 2010 general election campaign of my hon. Friend Stuart Andrew, who stood against a Unite-funded lackey. That cannot be right, and it clearly goes against my political beliefs.
The opt-in will need to be closely monitored. Affiliated votes in the Labour leadership campaign accounted for about 200,000 of 4.3 million trade unionists. If 1 million people suddenly opt into the political levy, something is going on. To be blunt, I believe that that could involve intimidation. Such tactics were used only last week in my constituency. Members of a protest group called the People’s NHS were knocking on doors and telling my constituents that the Government were selling off the NHS to an American company via the Transatlantic
Trade and Investment Partnership. We all know that that is tosh, especially as on
But it is worse than that. My constituents know me well, so they are quick to contact me with their concerns. One constituent contacted me to say that she felt “intimidated to agree” and that people
“had no choice but to put up their propaganda signs, because they were told everyone else was doing it and they would be the only ones who didn’t”.
This constituent even found comments in her name reported in the local press, which she did not agree to. Not only are those people nasty, ill-informed bullies and a disgrace to trade unionism, but to top it all they then tried to get my constituents to join Unite. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will have to have to bring in mechanisms to ensure that the opt-in is not abused by union thugs bullying people into signing up. We received warnings about this only last weekend from the former Home Secretary, David Blunkett, who fears a return to the bullying and intimidation of the 1980s in the labour movement.
I believe that people should have workplace representation. I class myself as a trade unionist because I believe that a union of people in a trade can negotiate better with someone representing them as a group, so that those who simply do not have it in them to stand up and speak out publicly can have representatives who will. The TUC in the 19th century recognised this and wanted to support working-class MPs to enable them to represent workers politically. That is a long way from today’s practice of using members for their leadership’s own political games. The public are tired of it, and these reforms are now being demanded. I believe that there needs to be a distinction between the public and private sectors, but fundamentally I want all workers to be properly represented in the workplace, independent of party politics.
“The trade union movement gave me a political education and the confidence to stand for election, and I know that this experience is shared with other Members who did not have a privileged start in life.”—[Hansard, 4 June 2015; Vol. 596, c. 832.]
I will never be ashamed of being a trade unionist.
The irony of this Bill is that it comes from a political party that believes the answer in today’s world is to deregulate—except in the case of the trade union movement and trade union law. The unions are subjected to heavy regulation, which the Tories bitterly oppose in other circumstances. This is a timely reminder that this
Government fear the trade union movement and that this Government know they can be defeated. That is because the trade union movement is the largest group in civic society that stands up against exploitation. The Bill will lead to a deterioration of good industrial relations and it has no support within public opinion. It is designed to reduce civil liberties and human rights.
The Bill also displays a remarkable ignorance—we have heard about that from several speakers already. The Government attempt to justify this Bill by citing industrial action that actually meets the thresholds. The Bill seeks to introduce the 40% rule, but I think it is dangerous for this Government to introduce that rule because the last time a Government tried to introduce such a rule, which affected Scotland, they had a low majority and they ended up being kicked out in a vote of no confidence. We will have the situation where dead people will be described as “not supporting” industrial action. That is why the thresholds are dangerous.
Does my hon. Friend not think it even stranger that the 40% threshold is demanded by a Government who got only 24% of the electorate overall and only 10.5% of the electorate in Scotland? They were rejected by 90% of the voters of Scotland.
Yes, I agree. In Scotland, at the last election, the Conservative party received its lowest share of the vote since universal suffrage began. If the Government are going to introduce thresholds, they need to consider securing workplace balloting, which could be easily sorted out by Electoral Reform Services, or online voting. Political parties use online voting when selecting their candidates, so the suggestion that there might be fraud is nonsense.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way. Does he agree that some of the rhetoric we have heard from Conservative Members is offensive to public sector workers, who do not take strike action at the drop of a hat and who are dedicated public servants? I am talking about home carers, cleaners, cooks, social workers, bin men, bin women and all those other people who safeguard our public services today. They do not take strike action at the drop of a hat, and it is disgraceful that Conservative Members have been using this rhetoric today.
I agree completely, and I will give some examples confirming what the hon. Lady describes. Introducing online voting and securing workplace balloting would be modernisation. We keep hearing about modernisation from Conservative Members, and we will come on to deal with it.
The other danger about thresholds relates to issues of equality and, in particular, gender equality. We know that in some male-dominated trade union workplaces women who have young families are affected when there are shift changes, and thresholds would have an impact on the rights of women workers to pursue industrial action on that basis. That happened recently in the case of a fire brigade control service in Essex.
We have heard rhetoric from Conservative Members about how the Bill will help hard-working people go about their business. Does the hon. Gentleman not therefore find it ironic that curtailing the rights of working people to organise collectively through trade unions, which is what this Bill is designed to do, will stop those people arguing for and bargaining for better working conditions?
Yes, I do. The Bill is designed to continue austerity—that is exactly what it is about. It is about trying to curb the largest organisation in the UK that is campaigning against austerity.
These issues of gender equality are very important, because recent trends have shown that what is on the increase is pregnant workers being dismissed and women workers coming back from maternity leave being made redundant. That is a recent phenomenon and this Parliament will need to address it. The Government have not taken any of those issues into account. As we heard earlier, 270 Conservative Members would not have been elected if those thresholds had been in place.
There is also the issue of the deadlines on ballot times. I was interested to hear the Secretary of State say that industrial action would not be curbed, but in actual fact it could be. Let us say that a large employer issued a 45-day redundancy notice. If the trade unions have to give 14 days’ notice of a ballot and 14 days’ notice to take industrial action, it will be very difficult for them to organise themselves within that timeframe, and it could well make industrial action impossible.
We oppose the changes on political funds. This is about not just party politics and attacking the Labour party, but the general campaigning that the trade unions fund as well. I am talking here about equal pay; stronger maternity leave; 50:50 gender representation; and giving money to organisations such as HOPE not hate and other anti-racist organisations, community groups, and international aid organisations such as Justice for Colombia and Medical Aid for Palestine.
That is exactly what it is designed to do. This attack is to weaken the rights of trade union members. When it comes to political funds, it should be up to the trade union members to decide. If members have issues about who trade unions are funding, it is up to them to organise themselves and to take up the matter with their trade unions—just as I always do. When my union funds a campaign that I might not necessarily support, I am told, quite rightly, that it should be up to us to organise.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that this area is much regulated at the moment? Not only do union members have to vote every 10 years on whether they want a political fund, but individuals also have a right to opt out of a political fund at any time they want. All the accounts of a political fund must be not only validated by the internal accountants but published. How much more transparency can we get?
Yes, indeed. I think the system is transparent. In my own trade union, we had the choice to fund the affiliated political fund within Unison or the general political fund, or even to opt out of the political fund.
The other danger with this Bill is that it politicises the role of the certification officer. We are also concerned with the new proposals on picketing and providing names. Such measures can only result in a new blacklist. Anyone who is a picket might as well wear two armbands—“union picket” on one arm and “blacklist me” on the other. That sets a very dangerous precedent. It also does not take into account the fact that Scotland and England have different criminal laws. I believe that is why we have heard comparisons with Franco’s regime.
The other concern relates to agency workers who are not supported by the agencies themselves. That can lead only to distrust within a workplace between those who are agency workers and those who work for the employer. Any time an employer asks a trade union about bringing in agency workers, there will immediately be suspicions about what the employer is up to. It is a rogue employers’ charter and the Government must think again on the matter.
I want to talk about check-off and facility time, and the incredible statements we have heard from the Government in that regard. I submitted a written parliamentary question on check-off and received the following answer from the Cabinet Office:
“It is no longer appropriate for public sector employers to carry the administrative burden of providing a check off facility for those trade unions that have not yet modernised their subscription arrangements. Employers are under no obligation to offer this service. There would therefore be no cost associated with an employer not providing this service”.
That shows a lot of ignorance, because what the Government appear not to know—they seem blissfully unaware of this—is that in many instances trade unions pay for check-off and for workers on facility time.
Let me give some examples of the deductions that could be made from a worker’s salary: charities’ give-as-you-earn, season ticket loans, credit union payments, staff associations—under these proposals there can be deductions for staff associations, but not for trade unions—bicycle loans, council tax and rent. Those are just examples of what can be deducted from a worker’s salary, and the Government call removing check-off modernisation! What a ludicrous suggestion.
First, all the examples that the hon. Gentleman has just given involve the employee opting in, rather than opting out, which is exactly what this legislation proposes. Secondly, of the 972 public bodies that do check-off fees, only 213—that is 22%—charge for the service; 78% do it for free.
The point is that they have chosen to provide the service for free. If there was a genuine consultation on this, many public bodies, including the Scottish and Welsh Governments, would say that they are not interested in removing check-off. Indeed, my former employer, Glasgow City Council, has today said that it is not interested and that it will ignore the request. The hon. Gentleman appears to suggest that people join trade unions automatically, but that is not the case. I signed a form and decided to tick my political fund arrangements on that basis.
Our view is that the Government have no right to interfere in the industrial relations of councils, health boards or devolved Administrations in the United Kingdom. Facility time improves industrial relations. It negates issues that would otherwise go to tribunal. If an employer has good facility time arrangements, disciplinary hearings and grievance hearings, for example, are conducted in a timeous fashion. If facility time is interfered with, those time scales will slip. Facility time is a good thing; it is good for industrial relations and it gets things done.
Do the hon. Gentleman’s points not illustrate that this Bill is causing division where there was harmony—between the nations, within organisations, between agency workers and workers, and between management and workers—and that it will therefore undermine productivity, cause conflict and protest and be contrary to its alleged objectives? In fact, it is just an ideological, mean-spirited measure that should be voted down by any sensible person.
I agree. The Bill is an ideological assault against the largest group in civic society that is standing up to the Government’s policies and to austerity.
Is the hon. Gentleman familiar with what the International Monetary Fund has said about the benefits of collective bargaining when it comes to economic success and prosperity? The Government are clearly either unaware of the IMF’s support for strong trade unions or not interested in having strong trade unions.
I agree, because what has happened to collective bargaining is tragic. In 1979, for example, 81% of workers in Scotland had their pay determined by collective bargaining, but that figure is now 23%. Collective bargaining should be encouraged across the board, because it leads to higher wages.
The Government should be going in the opposite direction. We need stronger trade union rights and stronger employment rights in this country. It cannot be right that an employer can issue a 45-day redundancy notice to a worker. That was one of the big mistakes of the previous Administration. We believe that trade unions have the right to bargain collectively. We believe that this Bill seeks to undermine the great work of the trade union movement. It is a 19th-century solution in a 21st-century world.
Does my hon. Friend agree that this Bill by the British Government is a real threat to the positive working relationships between the Scottish Government and the Scottish Trades Union Congress? The secretary-general of the STUC has said:
“The Westminster Government is essentially arguing, on the basis of an apparent desire to save ‘taxpayers money’ that the Scottish Government”
—a devolved Government in this United Kingdom—
“should not be allowed . . . to promote positive working relationships”.
Should not this Bill just be thrown out, because if we are “better together” it doesn’t bloody well feel like it?
Order. I think the hon. Gentleman might like to rephrase the last sentence of his intervention.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The TUC, the STUC and the TUC in Wales are having these discussions. The STUC and the Scottish Government oppose the Bill, and the TUC in Wales and the Welsh Government oppose it. Local authorities oppose it. Health boards oppose it. It has no support whatsoever across the public services.
I speak in support of the Bill but not against the trade union movement or its members. In fact, I hope to work with the Unite union to set up a taskforce for a business, Flowserve in Newark in my constituency, where Unite is representing my constituents powerfully and efficiently. I want to reach out to it in the days to come.
In my own family history, I see the trade union movement at its best—as an important voice for the expression and protection of working people faced by endemic low pay and appalling working conditions. My great-grandfather, James Barrett, was a leader of the general strike in Manchester. He was drawn to trade unionism by the plight of his wife, my great-grandmother, Mary Ridge, whose first husband, a trade unionist before the great war, was blacklisted, unable to work, and forced to emigrate to the United States. He was unable to afford a ticket for both of them, leaving my great-grandmother behind in Salford to look after their children, essentially to rebuild her life, before eventually finding out that her husband had died a broken man in the United States years afterwards. Men and women like these—there are many others in the history of this country—were driven by their concern for the condition of working people they saw around them, the most vulnerable in society. They were, as Harold Wilson liked to say about the Labour party, driven more by Methodism than Marxism.
It is in that spirit that I approach this Bill, asking myself and this House how we can best defend and enrich the rights and the working lives of all people, but particularly the most vulnerable working people in society. The imperative to represent the common good of all working people lies at the heart of this Bill. That is all the more important today, as membership of trade unions continues to decline. At least 79% of the working people of this country are not members of trade unions.
The hon. Gentleman will be well aware, I am sure, that a very high percentage of people who are trade union representatives and members are extremely concerned about this Bill’s possible infringement of their right and freedom to assemble, which is guaranteed by article 11 of the European convention on human rights. Whatever he and his colleagues think about it, that was the best decision the Labour party made when it brought it home in the Human Rights Act 1998. Where in this Bill can he point to the guarantee that there will not be an infringement of article 11 of the European convention?
Nothing in this Bill infringes the right to strike. It asks trade union bosses to achieve a higher mandate for those strikes. That can only strengthen the position of those trade union leaders, who will have the power and authority to win a clear mandate from their members.
Let me continue. Today the majority of those in trade unions are not the working poor—53% of members are in professional, associate professional or managerial occupations. Only a minority are in lower skilled, invariably lower-paid occupations, such as caring, leisure, processing, plant and machine work. Today’s trade unions predominantly serve middle-income workers. The figures show that those earning less than £250 a week—roughly the equivalent of a full-time job on the minimum wage—are the least likely to join a trade union. Just 13% of those workers are members, which is a smaller figure than the proportion of those earning more than £1,000 a week, who make up 22% of trade union members.
If I may continue, most working people in lower-skilled, lower-paid roles are not part of trade unions, and it is they who are most deeply impacted by the disruption of strikes, particularly in key public services, including education and transport. It is right that this House rebalances our trade union laws in favour of all working people. It seems entirely reasonable, therefore, that, among other sensible reforms and amendments, we introduce a 50% threshold for ballot turnout and a 40% support threshold for key public services.
The hon. Gentleman seems to be a reasonable man who has misunderstood the Bill. He says that he wants to help workers and defend their rights and that he supports the threshold, but what possible explanation could there be for Government Front Benchers to continue to tell us that they will not support electronic balloting? How can that possibly be reasonable in the 21st century?
Let me continue. Far from diminishing the voice of trade unions and, as I said in response to Lady Hermon, achieving the thresholds would increase the legitimacy of trade unions with management and shareholders and in the eyes of the general public. As we politicians know only too well, a strong mandate increases our legitimacy and the power and authority of our actions, and we have heard a lot over the past few days from the trade unions and their leaders about the value of a strong mandate.
As a result of this Bill, there may well be fewer strikes on less substantive matters that are not viewed by the unions’ own members as sufficiently serious to justify putting their employer and thus their job in jeopardy or that seriously inconvenience customers and the general public. Those that do go ahead will have a greater mandate and higher legitimacy, and consequently will need to be taken much more seriously by everybody involved in the negotiation.
I thank my parliamentary neighbour for giving way. He will recall the mass demonstration in his constituency following the unofficial power workers strike, when 5,000 people marched. I spoke at the rally and it concluded a dispute that involved a lot of the hon. Gentleman’s constituents. Is he aware that those constituents of his who participated would be criminalised by this Bill?
Other Members want to speak, so let me come to the end of my remarks.
The only unions and leaders who need fear these reforms are those who do not believe that they can regularly convince their own members of the veracity of their arguments—those who have essentially lost touch with the high ideals of the founders of the trade union movement. I think back to my ancestor, Mary Ridge. What would she have thought of the union leader who last year called a strike of teachers based on ballots that were years out of date and in which fewer than a quarter of teachers voted? It closed a special school in Newark at which parents, already struggling with the demands of juggling jobs and caring for children with special educational needs, had to take time off work or seek specialist childcare at short notice. What would she have thought of the female city cleaner on a low income trudging home through the streets of London because trade union bosses had taken tube drivers, whose average starting salary is £50,000 a year for 36 hours a week, out on strikes.
My ancestor would be surprised and ashamed by what some of the current trade union leaders have become.
In conclusion, there is unease among working people in this country about their economic lives and the economic situation around them. Much of that is to do with concentrations of power: the banks, the utility companies, and the housing market favouring existing owners. Organisations such as the CBI, the BBC or monopolistic companies such as BT Openreach speak loudly, but it is unclear whom they represent. Such organisations protect the interests of the privileged few. The Bill must be seen as part of a wider effort to move our economy and our society away from vested interests and the stifling effects of corporatism and back in favour of the common good of all working people in this country.
I draw to the House’s attention my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests and my membership of the Communication Workers Union.
In no other country in Europe would a mainstream, right-of-centre party bring forward such a Bill. It is an attack upon the trade union movement that may as well be called the dark satanic mills Bill, because even dark satanic mill owners may have hesitated to introduce such measures. The first rule of any legislation should be that it is necessary and tackles a perceived and obvious problem. That cannot be the case when industrial action over the past five years has been the third lowest five-year aggregate period in the history of this country. It cannot be the case that this is a serious issue.
Let me tell Government Members that just as trade union officials, whether leaders, shop stewards or local representatives, resort to industrial action only as a last possible measure, this House should consider legislation only as a last possible measure. I have never heard such a weak argument from a Secretary of State to support a Bill or a paucity of arguments supporting it, many of which seem to say, “We support trade unions and their right to strike,” but the only problem is that they have never supported a single strike in the whole history of the trade union movement.
The right hon. Gentleman’s opening argument is exactly the same as that made by the shadow Secretary of State, Ms Eagle, who would not take an intervention from me. My counter is that if union action and days lost due to strikes are at their lowest-ever level, how does the right hon. Gentleman explain the 70% increase in days lost due to industrial action in 2014 compared with 2013? Was it down to his union bosses flexing their muscles ahead of a general election?
I suggest that we set a room aside with some crayons and colouring boards and perhaps a “Teletubbies” DVD for those who want to engage in that level of immaturity. We are seeing the lowest level of industrial action practically since records began. The wonder of the past five years is that there has not been more industrial action given the problems that workers have had to go through.
Has my right hon. Friend taken note of the Regulatory Policy Committee’s comment that the Government have singularly failed to justify these measures and restrictions on the right to organise and protest? It has said clearly that no case has been made, so why are they doing this?
I hope I pass the “Teletubbies” hurdle for intellectual input. On the point about the numbers that strike, what consideration does the right hon. Gentleman give to the number of people impacted by strikes? When he was a Minister and subsequently, has that been a consideration in his thoughts about how unions’ right to strike should be regulated?
Of course industrial action has an impact, which is why, as I said, no trade unionist, trade union leader or trade union shop steward would ever contemplate industrial action unless it was as a last resort. When there was a protest in Parliament Square, as there frequently are, I was inconvenienced. The Hull fun run on Sunday was an enormous inconvenience. We do not attack democracy and democratic institutions on the basis that some people are inconvenienced by them. We either accept the right to strike, as the Secretary of State said he did, or we make facetious arguments about its having an effect on other people, in which, just like Mussolini and Hitler, whose first action it was, we ban free trade unions. But that is not what the Bill is about, as I understand it.
Is not the number of days lost in the UK to industrial action only half the EU average? Furthermore, are not 20 times more days lost owing to stress and depression, and might that not have something to do with the nature of this Government?
My hon. Friend, a good gas fitter in his time, makes a good point.
Alec Shelbrooke is an exception, but many Government Members do not have sufficient experience of dealing with employers and trade unions and of needing a trade union to defend them. We know that the Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice was once on a National Union of Journalists picket line in Aberdeen, but I think the Red Gove period did not last very long. I think he is practically alone in the Cabinet in having that experience.
There are many aspects of the Bill that I hope will be dealt with in Committee. It deserves the scrutiny it will get from Opposition Members when its passes through Second Reading—I hope it does not get a Second Reading, but I fear the worst—but its primary purpose is to introduce stringent restrictions on trade unions’ ability to take industrial action, so the first question has to be why. As hon. Members have said, we have gone from an average of 7.2 million days lost to industrial action each year in the ’80s to 647,000 since 2010. That is a spectacular reduction. On average, a unionised British worker will take strike action for one day every 15 years, and the duration of that action is likely to be one day.
Is my right hon. Friend aware that there is one exception to that? In London, under a leader who sits in this House and who has always refused to meet the trade unions or treat them like human beings, we have had three times as many strikes as during the previous eight years under a Labour Mayor?
I am happy to inform the House that the previous Mayor met the leader of the RMT only once, reportedly called him a gangster and sacked him from the board of Transport for London. May I ask my right hon. Friend—and, for all I know, relative—to acknowledge that the reason the Government are bringing forward this serious and, in my view, sensible Bill is that we have too many wildcat strikes, particularly in the transport sector? He began by saying that no other country in Europe would bring forward such proposals. Can I tell him—[Interruption.]
Order. The hon. Gentleman should receive the same courtesy as every other Member of the House while he makes a brief intervention.
I tell the right hon. Gentleman that not only do many European countries have restrictions and insist on minimum service requirements during strike action, but some countries ban strike action altogether, notably the United States, where 39 out of the 50 states ban mass transit workers from going on strike. He should also know that in Germany, which somebody mentioned earlier, there is a ballot threshold of 75%. These measures are entirely sensible and will prevent the abuse of working people.
I think that could be described as a wildcat intervention. Let me tell the hon. Gentleman that the result of this legislation will be more wildcat strikes. Yes, there are other countries where people are not allowed to strike. Postal workers in America, for instance, are not allowed to strike. In this country, prison officers and the police are not allowed to strike. In every single system like that, there is a process of employment relations and a process to air grievances that give a distinctive advantage to those industries in getting a result. According to the Secretary of State, the Bill does not say that there are industries in which strikes should not take place; it is an effort to affect millions of trade unionists and inhibit their right to strike because of a dispute involving a few thousand people at London Underground. That is the truth of the matter.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the description of strikes as “wildcat” is wildly inaccurate, because there is a very detailed process that every organisation must go through in order to allow its members to take industrial action?
That is an extremely important point. Another important statistic is that one in five industrial action ballots does not lead to any industrial action being taken. That tells us, among other things, that trade unionists do not take industrial action when the support is lukewarm.
What is interesting to me is that there is nothing in this or any other Government Bill that is designed to improve industrial relations—nothing like the partnership fund or the union learning fund that we set up to encourage both sides to come together. I tell Boris Johnson that, as a junior Minister, I once presented the partnership prize, which was a substantial metal object, to the late, great Bob Crow. Two weeks later, I read in the Evening Standard that there had been a big row between the RMT and London Underground, and that the RMT rep had thrown something at the London Underground manager. I just hoped that it was not the partnership fund award that I had presented.
We took positive action to ensure that the industrial relations climate everywhere across the country was better. There is nothing in the Bill that attempts to do that. As 77 experts in the field said in a letter to The Guardian, the Bill will have the opposite effect. They said that instead of proceeding with this, to use their term, “perverse” Bill,
“the government should be looking more seriously at how to engage and involve the British workforce and its representatives in rebuilding the UK economy and raising productivity”.
I say to Government Members that the Department of Trade and Industry had a review of facility time in 2007. The officials in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills at 1 Victoria Street are exactly the same officials who were at the DTI. There was wide consultation. The outcome was that facility time provided a net advantage to the employer and the country. It was also important in raising productivity—something that this Government have a serious problem with.
With no evidence as to its necessity, the Government have pressed ahead as if this were emergency legislation, scheduling Second Reading four days after the already compressed and laughably short consultation period. The aim seems to be to ensure that our debate coincides with the first day of the Trades Union Congress—a level of immaturity not seen since members of the Bullingdon club thought it would be fun to bare their bottoms outside a convent. Perhaps the Bill was drawn up by the Bullingdon club—perhaps the hon. Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip can tell us—and it certainly could not have been constructed more maladroitly if it had been.
The Department from which this Bill emanates is under new management. I suppose we could describe the former Secretary of State as the artist formerly known as Vince, and how we miss the worldly wise maturity of the former Member for Twickenham, who obviously managed to keep the padlock on the playpen in his years at 1 Victoria Street. He described the Bill as
“vindictive, counterproductive and ideologically driven,” and he has never spoken a truer word in his life.
The central feature of the Bill, which should be disturbing right hon. and hon. Members on the Government Benches, is that it is unprecedented, undemocratic and indefensible. Why? Because it gives a vote in trade union ballots to those who have, for whatever reason, decided not to cast their vote, and it classifies that vote in every circumstance as a “no” to industrial action. I honestly thought that the Secretary of State would give some examples of where such a measure is used. A golf club perhaps, or a local charity—anything where people who do not vote are classified as voting against. If, in a workplace of 1,000 people 499 workers vote in favour of industrial action and there is not a single vote against, that industrial action would be illegal. In the parlance of this Chamber, the noes would have it, the noes would have it.
The abstainers, the apathetic and the forgetful will have a no vote, as will those who miss the post—I love that as a former postman, but this is the only element of society where the only way that anything can be done is through the post. Communication Workers Union members are grateful, but they realise that this is not just about increasing their workload; it about attacking their rights.
If my hypothetical workplace fell under one of the six areas so far defined as important public services, a 79% yes vote on a 50% turnout would be illegal, as would a 64% yes vote on a 64% turnout. That cannot be defended. Someone could be the most rabid anti-trade union politician in the House—there may be some in the Chamber at the moment—but if their concern is for human rights and civil liberties they cannot defend that measure. It is literally indefensible.
We would not consider governing our debates in this House with such a practice. Why not govern our debates in that way if it is a democratic way to do it, so that those who do not vote are counted in the No Lobby? As Chris Stephens pointed out there is an issue about how we got our mandate on May 7, and the Secretary of State said, “Oh, but that is not a binary decision.” The European Union (Referendum) Bill that we debated last Monday is a binary decision, and we did not spend a second debating whether people who did not bother to vote should be counted as a no vote. Why not do that? If this is at all democratic, why is it not in that Bill?
Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that plenty of institutions in this country rely on the concept of a quorum before they take important decisions—particularly damaging decisions—about the lives of millions of people? It is only right that we should subject decisions by trade unions to a quorum.
I have been generous to fellow members of the Johnson clan, but the hon. Gentleman must understand the difference. In those organisations and countries where a 75% threshold is set for industrial action, it is 75% of those voting. Perhaps there should be thresholds in some of the constitutional referendums that we have. Perhaps leaving the European Union should require a 75% yes vote because it is a major constitutional issue, but it would be 75% of those voting. That is the difference with this legislation.
That is correct, and it should be something that we look at as part of a review of our democratic process, stretching from the other place to all the other aspects that Conservative Members have raised about the health of our democracy.
No, I will not give way.
One thing that cannot be suggested is that the decision on the European Union is less important than the decision that union members take in industrial action ballots, but that is the only argument put forward for the introduction of this measure in the Bill. These are important issues, we are told, and the loss of important public services can have far-reaching effects on significant numbers of ordinary people. Well, so can the EU referendum. I suggest that Conservative Members should make the argument that people who do not vote should be recorded as voting no—
No, I am not giving way to the hon. Gentleman. We have heard enough from him—[Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”] I seem to have made a popular decision.
Of course, the Government would make no such proposal, because it does not support democracy—indeed, it offends democracy. But we know nothing of the responses from all the institutions that may want us to take their views into account because the Bill was drawn up and put before the House even though the consultation closed only last Wednesday, five days ago. Incidentally, that breaches the Government’s own advice on how to consult on legislation.
As my hon. Friend Huw Irranca-Davies mentioned, the Bill did go before the Regulatory Policy Committee, which was scathing about three aspects of the legislation it was asked to examine, including the thresholds for 40% and 50%. It gave a red card to all three, deeming them not fit for purpose and stating that the Government had not provided sufficient evidence of the likely impact of the proposals to support the consultation. The Regulatory Policy Committee is the Government’s own watchdog, and that is as damning an indictment of a piece of legislation as we are ever likely to see from it.
Another aspect of the Bill is the attempt to make processes involved in picketing part of criminal rather than civil law. It is designed to address allegations of picket line intimidation, but the Carr review, set up by the Conservatives under the coalition Government to investigate such allegations, specifically said that it could find no evidence of intimidation. In response to the review, which was led by a Conservative, the Local Government Association said that its view was that
“there are no particular issues for local government in terms of alleged extreme tactics and the appropriateness of the legal framework to deal with inappropriate and intimidatory actions …we…very rarely…hear of such alleged tactics”.
Through the Association of Chief Police Officers, the police said:
“In general the legislative framework is seen by the police as broadly fit for purpose and the range of criminal offences available to the police sufficient to deal with the situations encountered.”
This is a non-issue. It was examined by a committee that had to downgrade itself because there was no evidence.
The Government know little about the workplaces of Britain and understand less. They certainly have no comprehension of the role that free, independent trade unions play as an essential component of a mature democracy or the history of the struggle for workers’ rights in this country. Many Conservative Members probably think the Donovan commission was the backing group on “Mellow Yellow”.
My right hon. Friend has substantive experience of these matters over many years. Does he think that when a grievance in the workplace is artificially blocked from expressing itself it tends to go away or does it fester in much worse ways for a much longer period of time, to the disadvantage of the employer as well as employees?
My hon. Friend raises the central point. I do not know about other trade union officials here, but I spent most of my time trying to stop strikes, trying to resolve them after they had happened and trying to find a formula to get people back to work. Try standing in front of 2,000 striking Liverpool postmen and telling them “I’ve got a deal.”
There is a complete fallacy which is shared by even the hon. Member for Elmet and Rothwell and his colleagues who are trade union members. They seem to miss the point that if unions cannot ballot legally, they lose the opportunity for leadership to hold the pressure cooker together and to conduct disputes in a civilised way with the employer. To lose or discourage that is asking for the kind of wildcat action mentioned by the hon. Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip.
Madam Deputy Speaker, I can see you are looking at me. I will conclude my comments. Where the Government have consulted, the response is not known. Where they have put the Bill’s measures to its own Regulatory Policy Committee, they have been deemed not fit for purpose. The review commissioned to look at aspects of this proposed legislation was downgraded by its own Government-appointed chair. The major aspects of the Bill will breach the legally binding undertakings that UK Governments have signed up to through the International Labour Organisation. The greatest threat to workers and employees is not from balloted industrial action, which last year led to 155 stoppages in an economy of over 30 million workers, but from disruptive unofficial action that neither side of industry can control and that the Bill will make more likely. I am reminded of a Russian trade unionist—we all met them in our days as trade union officials before 1990—who said to me, “Of course industrial action is legal in Russia, as long as it has been approved by the state.” All I can say is that the Russians would have been proud of this Bill. It is a bad Bill. It needs to be killed—now.
I will be a lot brisker than Alan Johnson. I hope I will be able to get through what I want to say in three or four minutes. If I do it briskly enough I will irritate everybody in this debate, because there are fallacies on all sides. I was not going to declare an interest, but the contribution by Chris Stephens has provoked me. I do not have a financial interest, but my grandfather was blacklisted.
The reason those comments resonate with me is that my grandfather, who brought me up, was as a young man blacklisted and unemployed for 17 years because he was an organiser in the coalfields in the north-east. The House will understand that I am a little sensitive to some of the impingements on civil liberties that can come out of industrial relations.
It is a particular pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle. I keep calling him my right hon. Friend. He was a fabulously good trade union leader. As we just heard, he is a great debater, but he and I have also served occasionally on the same side in negotiations. Every single time, we managed to get an outcome that was helpful to the workforce and to the companies we were dealing with. That does not mean, however, that he has everything right here.
I have been very helpful to the Labour party in some of the comments I have made, but I will say this: there is an issue when a monopoly—it does not matter whether it is a private or public sector monopoly—goes on strike. The victim is then the public. It is not the workforce, because they tend to get their money back in overtime, and it is certainly not the owners, because their market share does not go away and they do not lose anything. The public, however, have nowhere else to go. I have some sympathy with much of Labour Members’ criticisms of the Bill, but they have to address this issue: how do we deal with a problem where action by a trade union, without proper and sufficient support from its membership, discomforts the public very badly?
No, I am going to be very brisk.
The word “discomfort” is a very soft word to use. Not being able to go to work, to hospital or to school is more than a discomfort.
I would like to come on to my primary criticisms of the Bill. The right hon. Gentleman referred to the proposals relating to picketing. I am particularly offended by the idea that a picket organiser needs to give his name to the police force. I have discussed this with the Minister and know that this provision has been included in previous legislation. I am ashamed to say that I missed it last time, otherwise I would have voted against it. This is a serious restriction of freedom of association. It is not the same as getting the organiser of a big demonstration to give his name to the police. There is all the difference in the world between 500,000 people clogging up London and half a dozen pickets shivering around a brazier while trying to maintain a strike.
This issue is incredibly important, and we do not want to get on to a slippery slope. I say to the Minister that I will be seeking—and I am not alone—to alter the measure during the Bill’s progress. Doing that will improve the Bill; it will not make it worse or take away anything fundamental. It will, however, remove the suggestion, made time and again by the Opposition, that this is somehow a vindictive anti-union Bill. It is not. This should be a Bill for the people, not against the unions. That is what fits with our approach.
I also want to raise the issue—it is in consultation at the moment, but because the consultation has been fast it may turn up as a Government amendment later—of restricting the actions of unions on social media. This proposal strikes me as both impractical—how on earth would it be done?—and asking for judicial trouble. There will be judicial review if this line is pursued. It has been argued that the measure is there to stop bullying. Well, fine—then pass a law to stop bullying and intimidation, but make it affect everybody, not just trade unions. We already have quite a lot of laws to prevent intimidation.
They are two critical elements and weaknesses in the Bill. I say to the Minister that I will seek to prevent both of them making it through to Third Reading. I will vote for the Bill today, but I am afraid that if it still contains those measures on Third Reading, I will vote against it. I say again to him that I doubt I will be alone.
Order. Before I call the next speaker, it will be obvious to the House that although we have been having a lively debate and I have allowed speeches to go on to encourage genuine debate, a very large number of Members wish to speak. I will now have to impose a time limit of six minutes.
I draw the attention of the House to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.
In opening the debate, the Secretary of State mentioned one nation Government. Disraeli, the architect of one nation Toryism, passed the Conspiracy, and Protection of Property Act 1875, which decriminalised the work of trade unions and allowed for picketing. I think Disraeli will be turning in his grave at what a Conservative Government are doing tonight. The Bill runs contrary to a British sense of fair play and common sense. It will increase bureaucracy and burdens of regulation, and it will be counterproductive to the Government’s stated aims of improving efficiency and productivity. The Bill will not help us become more prosperous. If anything, it runs the risk of making industrial action more disruptive and the British economy less productive and less attractive to inward investment.
As several of my hon. Friends have already said, the level of industrial action in the UK is historically low. As my right hon. Friend Alan Johnson said, the average number of working days lost to industrial action since 2010 has been 647,000, in stark contrast to the average in the 1980s of 7.213 million. The past 30 years have seen a historically low incidence of industrial action, as a consequence of the changing nature of the employment market, a reduction in union membership and legislation that, frankly, has restricted union power.
Alan Johnson suggested that such events were inconveniences when they happen. Surely Mr Wright can accept that London is brought to its knees on a regular basis, with staff taking two or three hours to get to work and back again and with a great loss of employment and money. These are not inconveniences; they are serious and they need tackling.
Britain has low levels of industrial disputes relative to our main economic rivals—half the EU average, as my hon. Friend Grahame M. Morris said, and lower than the figures in the US, Korea and Canada. If industrial action acting as a material disruption to the running of the modern economy is the premise behind the Bill, that will not bear scrutiny of the evidence.
Clause 2, which introduces a 50% turnout requirement to authorise a ballot, has significant implications. It goes against the British value of common sense and fair play. No other part of the constitutional settlement or democratic engagement requires that threshold. Clause 3, requiring 40% support for action in “important public services” is equally sinister. Again, in no other part of important public services is that required. It is not a requirement for the important public service of electing a local councillor or a Member of Parliament.
The Government argue that a positive impact of the provisions in clauses 2 and 3 will be that unions will work harder to make the case for ballots for industrial action. However, it is far more likely that there will be greater disruption and use of leverage campaigns, such as withdrawal of good will, work-to-rule, protests, demonstrations and unofficial action. Paradoxically, the Bill might result in more working days lost to industrial action and a failure to address the pressing economic challenge of improving productivity. In a modern economy, surely the most appropriate approach is collaboration rather than confrontation.
When General Motors was restructuring its European operations in 2012, the Ellesmere Port car plant would probably have closed had it not been for the close working relationship between management and unions. The ability of Nissan to win the internal competition to build the new Juke earlier this month is testimony to continuous improvement, a drive towards efficiency and constantly rising quality levels, which are possible only through effective collaboration between management and unions.
The Bill pushes us towards a more adversarial relationship between management and the workforce. Does the Minister really think that deals such as those done on behalf of the UK economy with GM or Nissan will be made easier through this Bill when its provisions lend themselves to mutual suspicion, acrimony, work-to-rule and more disruptive industrial relations? The ability of this country to land more inward investment is compromised through the Bill.
The Secretary of State has stated that one of the main themes of his leadership of the Department will be deregulation and we on the Select Committee on Business, Innovation and Skills will certainly want to consider the work of the Government to ensure that businesses are freed from unnecessary red tape, but why has the same approach to deregulation not been applied to the Bill? Under clause 6, the Bill imposes such burdensome regulation that it puts the EU banana straightening compliance team to shame. The extension of the roles and powers of the certification officer will impose additional administrative and financial pressures on unions. There will be a reporting requirement as to whether industrial action took place in the past 12 months, the nature of the dispute and the action that was taken. Unions might not collect such information centrally, so that will add additional bureaucracy. There is also something sinister about the state’s collecting information on what might be private disputes between the employer and workforce that could be resolved relatively early in the negotiation process.
In an economy that is becoming increasingly characterised by unequal, low-skilled and insecure employment with workers employed in small companies or often categorised as self-employed, the challenge of collective bargaining and how unions can work to play a positive role should be considered and encouraged, yet this petty and vindictive Bill does nothing to deal with that. It stops harmonious industrial relations and long-term prosperity. It should be killed by the House tonight.
I welcome many of the provisions in the Bill, which brings some much-needed modernisation and a little common sense back into trade union law. As we continue to rebalance the economy and reform the public sector, we cannot leave trade union law unreformed if we are to continue to compete in the global economy. The measures proposed today are both reasonable and moderate and will enhance our economic competitiveness while protecting the essential rights of trade union members.
Clause 2, with its turnout requirement, has provoked some opposition, with the argument being made that if it were applied to politicians they might not meet the threshold. I would argue that that tends to apply only in local government elections, where there is a lack of voter engagement. There is no greater engagement than deciding whether to go to work on a Monday morning or not, so if the union’s cause is strong enough meeting the turnout threshold should not pose a problem.
The need for the clause has been further supported by the comments made by union leaders today. The Labour party and union bosses are now effectively as one, and the Public and Commercial Services Union general secretary, Mark Serwotka, has said:
“We have the ability to stop austerity in its tracks, to topple this government and to ensure we get a fairer society.”
Those comments serve only to fuel concerns that union leaders, emboldened and unchallenged by the Labour party, will seek to use their members as pawns in some sort of cynical political power struggle.
I think it probably will be now that Labour has a new leader—it seems to be very politically aligned.
It should be noted that according to the Office for National Statistics, 3 million working days have been lost in the past five years due to labour disputes, more than 80% in the public sector. That is simply unfair on the hard-working taxpayer, so, on their behalf, I welcome clause 2.
Does my hon. Friend agree that it is a bit of a cheek for Alan Johnson to question the constitutional propriety of the Bill, which has an election mandate behind it from the election four months ago, whereas, under the previous Labour Government, the unions effectively bought policy through the Warwick I and Warwick II agreements in exchange for large amounts of funding for the Labour party?
My hon. Friend makes a point that has been made often. I think we also saw the influence of the union movement in the recent Labour leadership elections and the selection of Front Benchers.
Other sensible measures in the Bill are clauses 7 and 8, which set an expiry date on industrial action ballot mandates and extend the notice period that unions must give employers from seven to 14 days. The latter will give more time to reach settlements, which can only be a good thing for all parties concerned, while giving those adversely affected, such as commuters and parents, time to make other arrangements, whereas the former is a common-sense measure given the present situation of having effectively rolling mandates that can last for years and might be ongoing long after the members who originally voted for them have left employment.
Clause 9, on picketing, has engendered a number of comments and I understand that there are concerns about the level of police involvement. There is, however, an issue of intimidation in the trade union movement. One needs only to think back to the incident with Unite officials at the Grangemouth oil refinery in 2013, in which a mob was sent to protest outside a family home with banners, flags and a giant inflatable rat, which led to a country pub and even a charity fun run being disrupted.
My hon. Friend makes a good point, but my simple question is: why not deal with that through a general anti-intimidation law rather than a specific union law?
My right hon. Friend has made that point and it is worthy of consideration. I am sure that he will bring his knowledge of the subject to our discussions of the Bill as we proceed.
That incident was linked to a Labour party candidate selection row and was perpetrated by union officials. That serves only to highlight how intimidation tactics have recently been employed by a limited number of trade union activists, and those tactics have no place in this country, as my right hon. Friend Mr Davis agrees.
I have already given way, and I am afraid I will not do so again on this occasion—I would love to, but I cannot.
That leads me neatly on to the political levy. I see no reason, other than self-interest, why there should be any objections to the notion of opting in to pay towards a political fund. Many people join trade unions to protect their rights, not to prop up the finances of the Labour party. We have evidence from Northern Ireland—it came out earlier in the debate—that, having been asked to choose, only 39% were in favour of paying this political levy. This clause should also be of particular interest to SNP Members, given that many of their supporters in Scotland are no doubt paying the political levy to finance support for the Labour party. Clause 10 will make the act of political donation one of free will, and I see no reason other than self-interest why it should not be supported.
I turn next to clause 12 and the issue of facility time. I believe that in an increasingly transparent world, with the publication by public bodies of items of expenditure over £500, it is only right that trade union activity, effectively subsidised by the taxpayers, is subject to the same scrutiny, particularly at a time of reduced budgets. I know that the vast majority of hard-working taxpayers in my constituency would be outraged if they knew their taxes were being used to support aggressive political campaigns.
I welcome the enhancement of the role of the certification officer, and it is again a common-sense reform for officers to be able to act on information or concerns they have received from a third party. In addition, I welcome the fact that they have specific investigatory powers to regulate trade unions in order to make this legislation workable.
In conclusion, I have been lobbied at great length regarding this Bill, but on close analysis I believe it to be both proportionate and necessary. Trade union members have the right to be protected from being exploited not only by their employer, but by their union bosses who seek to use them to further their own political aims. Given the make-up of the Labour leadership team, this Bill is vital to protect the rights of all working people who seek to go to work, to raise their family and to contribute to this country, free of politically motivated strikes, unnecessary disruption and threats from union officials to topple a democratically elected Government enacting the mandate given to them by the British people as recently as this May. I am therefore happy to endorse the Bill as another step forwards to greater economic prosperity for this country.
We have listened to some good speeches from Members, from both those who disagree with the Bill and those who agree with it.
I have been a trade unionist all my life, starting as a coalminer and member of the National Union of Mineworkers. Before anybody gets up to interrupt me, let me say that I have been on strike only three times in my life. The miners were never fond of going on strike, but when they did, they did.
I was always available to the manager when there was trouble at the pit. He would ring me and get out of bed—I do not know whether other colleagues have had the same experience—and say, “There’s trouble, can you come across to the pit?” We would get together the lads who were not working, get them back on their feet and digging coal again. I solved the problem—until the next morning. What we used to say was, “Work under protest; we will have a meeting with the manager tomorrow and solve the argument.” Nine times out of 10, we did. There were not many wildcat strikes in the coal mines, although we did have two or three big strikes.
It has been said many times that this Bill attacks trade unions rather than work with them. In my trade union work, I always found that I could work with the manager. We would have arguments many times, but we came up with an agreement in the end.
We have heard about wildcat strikes, but I am afraid that this Bill might bring them back big style. Once unions are shackled through the ballots and the thresholds, there could be more wildcat strikes, which are worse than organised strikes.
The check-off, the paying-in or the opt-out of the political levy is another issue. That has annoyed me more than anything. The hypocrisy of this Government in trying to stop trade unions paying into the political levy is obvious. The political levy goes not just to the Labour party but to a lot of organisations. It could be asked why the Government are doing this. Perhaps they are trying to stop trade unionists putting money into Labour; perhaps they want to crush the party by stopping its money.
I looked up some companies. I thought, if the Tories are stopping us getting money, what about Amazon, which gave £19 million to the Tories? Then there is the Dell corporation, which gives £7.3 million; Ford motor company, which gives £12 million; and Siemens, which gives £4.7 million—and these are only a few! These are big companies giving money to the Tories—it is their slush bucket.
No, I will not.
I sometimes wonder what the shareholders think of those companies. Have they got an opt-out? Have the shareholders got an “in” or “out” vote in the same way as is proposed for the trade unions? Let us be fair. I appreciate that these companies get a lot of money off the Government. I have the figures with me here, showing that these companies are getting subsidies worth £93 billion a year from the taxpayer. We have heard the Tories talking about the taxpayers—the poor taxpayers—but I can tell the poor taxpayers that they are getting diddled. The big companies are getting that much tax off them.
I had a look at the House of Lords.
Well, I will be next, but I will not be putting in the money these guys put in! Now we come on to the auction and the Tory slush bucket. Lord Ross has given the Tory party £200,000; Lord Davies, £160,000; Lord Griffin, £250,000—and I could go on and on and on. This is where the Tories get their money from. That is how it goes into the Tory slush bucket, and now they are attacking the trade unions in the check-off and opt-in votes.
I rise perhaps in the same spirit as my right hon. Friend Mr Davis in that what I have to say may put me out of favour on both sides of the House. I rise as a seemingly rare thing—a Conservative who is a member of a trade union, in my case the teaching union ATL, the Association of Teachers and Lecturers. My reticence stems perhaps from the fact that many would not see the two sitting comfortably together. However, I see no contradiction in being both a Conservative and a member of a trade union. Indeed, although we get little credit for it, it was the Conservative party that first legislated to fully legalise trade unions under Benjamin Disraeli.
I want first to express a general opinion on trade unions before moving on to deal with two particular aspects of the Bill about which I have reservations. A trade union should be, I believe, a body that concerns itself with the rights and welfare of its members. It should be an organisation that strives to improve the working lives of people. It should always seek to work in partnership with employers, engaging in constructive dialogue and discussion. What a trade union should not be is a deliberately destructive force, seeking to hold back the economy of the country and unduly inconvenience, or—worse still—endanger other members of society. The ultimate power of calling a strike should always be the last resort, following exhaustive efforts to seek the resolution of disputes. Let me be clear: the withdrawal of labour is a fundamental right, but it is a right that must be tempered with responsibility.
The Bill contains a number of sensible measures: for example, the expiry of the mandate to strike four months after the date of the ballot, and the prevention of the unacceptable scenario of union bosses using ballots, sometimes years old, to call strikes when the issues at hand, and crucially the opinions of workers, might since have shifted. Also the two-week notice period for employers is welcome, so that proper planning can take place. Furthermore, I support the Government’s view that the political contributions of union members should constitute an act of free will, which is not the case under the current arrangements.
My first reservation about the Bill—and I am grateful for the Minister’s consideration of it—concerns “facility time”, which clause 12(8) defines as paid time in which union representatives can undertake unions duties and activities. I am concerned about the fact that “facility time” conflates trade union “duties” and trade union “activities”. It should be clear that such time should not be used for political activities such as the organisation of strikes and political lobbying, but should meet the genuine need for union representatives to be involved in important HR issues between individual union members and employers.
I suggest to the Minister that seeking to reduce “facility time” by publicising it, which does not take account of its exact nature, poses a risk that genuine HR matters may be unfairly neglected. I think that the Bill should clarify the position by making a subtle but important distinction between the sub-types of facility time, which should be carried through to the point of publication that the Bill stipulates. Such a clarification would surely be in line with the spirit of a measure that is, after all, designed to promote transparency and public scrutiny of “facility time”.
I consider health and safety to be a union duty rather than a union activity, so I agree with that.
Surely transparency can only be enhanced by the introduction of an additional layer of detail, rather than the conflation which I fear could arise from the Bill’s current wording.
My second concern relates to the possibility of the use of agency workers to cover striking workers. I agree with every word that was said about it by my hon. Friend Alec Shelbrooke, and I urge the Government not to go down that path.
Having raised those issues that concern me, I should add that I am minded to support the Bill, because I believe that we have a Minister who listens and can consider fairly arguments that are put to him in the House. I look forward to further discussions with him.
Let me end by saying that, while the events of the weekend may have revealed the Labour party’s desire to step back into the 1970s and 1980s, thus making themselves a political irrelevance, we Conservatives must show ourselves to be beyond that. We must show ourselves to be reasonable, responsible and, above all, relevant to the needs of the country. Yes, that means reform of the trade unions; but we must be careful not to be seen to erode fundamental rights and liberties of workers who are the foundation of our economy. We must look at measures objectively, and not risk fighting the battles of the past.
I have great experience of much of what is in the Bill. I have been on picket lines on countless occasions, and I have been assaulted on picket lines on numerous occasions. Like my hon. Friend Mr Campbell, I have taken part in strikes many, many times, as a representative and as a worker in the coal mines in Northumberland—and yes, those may not have been just day strikes; they may have lasted a lot longer. I have been probably been on strike more than any of the 649 other Members of Parliament, apart from my hon. Friend. I have been involved in the check-off system, and I have been involved with certification officers. I have been hauled before them as a trade union representative, and I have defended people through them. I have vast experience of these matters.
This piece of proposed legislation is not really about picket lines, armbands and social media. In my view, it represents a savage industrial provocation that is rarely seen or experienced in any modern democracy. These measures are simply headline-catching bolt-ons, designed, like the proverbial three-card trick, to distract—in a very Tory tradition—those who show an interest from the true meaning of the legislation. Quite simply, the Bill seeks to crush the last vestiges of dissent against an increasingly authoritarian right-wing Government.
Let us look at the dubious record of the Prime Minister and his “compassionate” Conservatives during the last Parliament. It can be seen very clearly. It is a record of mass privatisation—of the Prison Service, the probation service and Royal Mail—and the carving up of the national health service to near destruction, the introduction of the bedroom tax, the butchering of council budgets in poorer areas, and the slashing of social security for the most vulnerable. And what happened to those who dared to stand up against the Tory agenda? They were gagged as a result of the Transparency of Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Act 2014.
The Bill is an affront to democracy. It is simply part 2 of that gagging Act, and goodness knows what will happen in part 3. It is designed to tie the hands and close the mouths of trade unions and their members, and to slit the throats of the parliamentary Opposition while the Tories hack their way to a state shrunken by their crass and flawed ideology. It is designed to ease through swingeing cuts in the public sector with no organised opposition, to proliferate the low-wage economy, and to help the Tories’ friends and donors to make millions on the back of a disorganised, downtrodden and low-paid work force. Working people will risk criminal records simply to oppose this disgraceful Government.
I agree with Mr Davis, who said that bits of the Bill were over the top—for instance, the requirement for pickets to give their names to the police. What is this, he asked—Franco’s Britain? No, it is Queen Elizabeth II’s Britain. I fully agree with that.
As for the issue of people attending picket lines and putting on armbands, numerous Members have said that it would be far better to put on a shirt that read “Blacklist me—I do not want further employment.” Why not put a target on the back, and then put on a big hat? And as for the issue of agency workers, I can see a problem with people on benefits who will be sanctioned if they do not agree to be bussed into places where there are disputes, and to break strikes.
The Bill is part of a jigsaw of legislation that the Government have forced through during more than one parliamentary term. They are extending the role of the certification officer in regulating trade unions, which includes the granting of a new power to impose fines. That simply means the introduction of a new trade union tax: the unions will have to pay for the investigatory powers of the certification officer. It is ludicrous, and it is against democracy.
I believe that the Government clearly understand that the Bill is in breach of the European convention on human rights. It is in breach of a number of European articles, and it is in breach of the International Labour Organisation convention. The Government realise that, but they believe that if they get the Bill through, appeal after appeal will mean that any decision will be made for years to come.
The Bill must be opposed. It seeks to destroy freedom of association, collective bargaining, and the right to hold a view in the workplace. It must be killed.
I echo comments that have been made by Members on both sides of the House. Without our trade unions, Britain would not have become the strong nation that it is today. In securing legal representation for employees suffering discrimination and safer working conditions for their members, our nation’s unions have much in their history of which to be proud.
In my own rural constituency, I work closely with the National Farmers Union to back British farmers effectively. I would not support a Bill that stopped trade unions playing any of those constructive roles, because I believe that they are a valuable part of our society. That, however, is not the Bill that is before us; it is quite the opposite. This Bill does not make our trade unions weaker; in the long term it will help them be stronger by making them more transparent, more legitimate and, most of all, more democratic. The greatest danger unions in this country face is not from the legislators of this House; it is from the loss of the public’s trust. Unions have always been powerful advocates for their members’ rights, but it is important that we find a balance between the right of union members to strike and the rights of millions of working people to access the vital public services they rely on and to go about their daily lives without disruption. When 450,000 teachers go on strike in England, more than 8 million children are affected—millions of working families where mums or dads have to take a day off work.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the use of the terms “working families” and “working people” as if people who are involved in trade unions are not good working people is offensive—just as offensive as this Bill is?
I completely reject those comments. There is nothing in this Bill that is offensive: it is a moderate Bill that is attempting to balance the rights—[Interruption.] Absolutely; it is a moderate Bill that is balancing the right to strike with the rights of people who are trying to earn a living in difficult circumstances, and trying to get to work or go about their daily business. When my constituents’ lives are disrupted and they express that frustration to me, I want to be able to tell them, because they want to be able to be sure, that that disruption was genuinely a last resort and a serious matter supported by a strong and continuous mandate. I do not want to have to tell them that their lives were seriously inconvenienced by a strike supported by just 22% of members almost two years ago.
Unions were created to give the weak more power against the strong, yet too often we find that strike action can hit the most vulnerable the hardest. When vital public services are put out of action, it is not well-paid corporate executives who suffer; it is someone doing less well-paid shift work, because if they cannot make it to work, they will not get paid. That is who I am thinking of when I think about the provisions in this Bill.
Despite the scaremongering, this Bill does nothing to prohibit strike action. Instead it simply ensures that the right to strike is balanced with the rights of people who are affected by strikes and have no say in whether or not they will happen. It ensures that those strikes are the result of a clear and positive democratic mandate from members. To me, this balance appears reasonable, fair and necessary.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the context of this Bill is that it is intended to deal with the problem of a 77% increase in the loss of working days over recent times? Last year alone the number of days lost to industrial action was higher than the average of the 1990s and 2000s.
I agree with my hon. Friend. In today’s world, it is important that we maintain a competitive economy and increase employment, and having trade union legislation that is updated for that modern economy is vital if trade unions are to ensure their relevance in today’s economy.
I am sorry, but I would like to make some progress.
I was proud to see that it was the original one nation Conservative Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli who first legalised the picket line. That is a legacy that I, and I am sure my colleagues on the Front Bench, have no intention of turning away from. In fact I commend the majority of unions who work successfully with the police and other authorities to ensure safe, lawful and constructive picket lines. But if those picket lines become a means to intimidate non-striking workers and impact their families, something has gone wrong. Intimidation or harassment of individuals is simply not acceptable in today’s Britain.
I am sorry but I am keen to carry on.
Therefore it is right that key provisions in the existing picketing code become legally binding. It is right that unions are accountable for the behaviour of their picket lines, to tackle this problem of intimidation, otherwise I fear the reprehensible actions of a few—a tiny minority—will undermine the lawful, peaceful reputation of the vast majority of unions and their members.
In sum, this Bill ensures that unions can continue to play a valuable role, doing the work they do best while operating with the transparency, fairness and democracy they need to retain the public’s confidence. This is not a Bill against trade unions; it is a moderate Bill that balances the rights of unions and people working across this country, and I commend it to the House.
I have been a trade unionist since I was 18 and am currently a member of Unison. I have also spent six weeks on strike. My then young family suffered the consequences and we got into debt as a result. It took a while for us to recover, but recover we did, and we benefited in the longer term after the dispute was settled. Nobody wants to strike. I had two young boys and I went on strike not for the fun of it, nor in some bizarre attempt to damage my employer or his customers, but because my employer was being unjust and it took a walk-out for him to come to his senses and offer a fair wage settlement.
The law allowed us to strike, but only after we had cleared the hurdles or met the criteria laid down by the then new Thatcher Tory union legislation. We did not like Thatcher’s restrictions but we worked within them. The Tories of the day thought they were balanced and provided protection for the employers and the wider public; I thought they were extreme. But now the current Tory Government want to impose more restrictions, which could see local unpaid trade unionists dragged into court for all manner of reasons including placing messages on Facebook or Twitter without giving the requisite notice demanded by the Government.
Does my hon. Friend agree that every time the Tories come to Parliament to introduce these sorts of powers, which are ever-more draconian, they always say they are balanced and reasonable?
They certainly do, and they have said the same of this legislation today.
The Tories have made a big thing about opposing identity cards, but now demand that trade unionists have them as well as armbands to help single them out, yet it is unclear how compliance with these and other requirements are connected to the prevention of intimidation of non-striking workers. Laws already exist which prevent that and unions must comply with a detailed statutory code of practice.
Peaceful protest is an important part of an open and democratic society, and there should be no place for a law that makes criminals of people making their voices heard in this way. But the Minister’s eagerness to undermine the trades unions, and put limits on their members’ rights to freedom of expression, makes me wonder exactly what it is that he is scared of. Perhaps this is just a mechanism to sting the unions in the pocket and to silence the inevitable protests that will come as the Government continue to erode the rights of workers and screw down pay, particularly in the public sector.
Let us not forget that public sector workers in particular are already under the cosh. The recently announced extension of pay restraint will hurt these workers for a further four years, with most having already been hit pretty hard with poorer deals on pensions, and many others now facing the prospect of losing their job as deeper cuts to the public sector continue to bite.
The ability of workers to withdraw labour is fundamental to our democracy and I am not aware of any democracy elsewhere in the world that imposes such severe restrictions on legitimate industrial action. It is worth remembering that the UK already has one of the most regulated systems of industrial action in the world.
The Bill dictates that industrial action, including strike action, will only be lawful if a minimum 50% turnout among those trade union members entitled to vote is achieved, while additionally requiring 40% of those members balloted to vote in favour of industrial action across what the Government term “important public services”. This term is of great significance. The Tory manifesto, as well as the subsequent Queen’s Speech briefings, stated that the 40% requirement would apply only to four “essential public services”: health, fire, transport and education services. Yet the Government have now extended this list to include other sectors, such as border security, the decommissioning of nuclear installations and the management of radioactive waste.
I would also welcome any clarity the Minister can provide around how he intends to escape the inevitable confusion arising when attempting to ballot a workplace where some occupations are covered by the “important public services” provisions and others are not. Will the Minister give further details on the requirement for “reasonably detailed” information to be provided on ballot papers? If a failure to provide such information is to be a basis for legal action by employers against workers taking industrial action, it is crucial that the House should be informed in advance of how “reasonably detailed” is to be defined.
The Government also peddle the claim that the 40% requirement will legitimise any ballot outcome. Have they considered what that would have meant if applied to them in the ballots they faced just a few months ago? I have, and it is a fact that 16 of the 27 Ministers who attend Cabinet would never have been returned to Parliament if they had needed 40% of their total electorate to vote for them.
The Bill will create substantial legal and administrative costs for unions, which will be required to report annually to the certification officer on levels of industrial action and on how political funds have been used. This is on top of additional cost burdens elsewhere, should the changes to check-off procedures and facility time pass unamended. There is no parity under these rules with the functions of other civil society or campaign groups. If the political use of union funds has to be reported regularly and in detail, perhaps we should have a parallel system for those companies whose donations fund the Tory party. They, too, should be compelled to outline in similar detail to shareholders, at regular intervals, how they have spent their money funding their friends on the Government Benches.
In relation to modernisation, the last Tory-Lib Dem Government continued the good progress made by Labour to promote e-government and all manner of new ways of doing business more efficiently. Surely our unions should be able to do likewise, with online ballots to maximise participation and ensure a clear mandate for industrial action. Sadly, the Government do not appear to favour that. Will the Minister tell us why not?
The Government claim to be the party of working people, but threatening the right to take industrial action tilts the balance of power in the workplace too far in favour of employers. It will mean that workers are unable to stand up for decent services and safety at work, or to defend their jobs or pay. It is clear that the Government are not interested in encouraging workplace democracy. Instead, they are attempting to prevent midwives, firefighters, teachers and cleaners from protesting against cuts in jobs, pay and conditions. I find this unacceptable, and I very much hope that the Government will reconsider these calamitous proposals.
Like my right hon. Friend Mr Davis, I shall begin by declaring an interest. I also have a family link to trade unions: my grandfather was a trade union activist. He was known as Red Harry, and his obituary appeared in Socialist Worker. I mention him not only to declare an interest but to draw attention to what has changed in our industrial relations. When he was a trade union activist, during the first half of the last century, the principal conflict was between workers and capital. Much was achieved by the combined work of the Labour party and the trade unions in enhancing workers’ rights, but Labour Members, some of whom tend to use rather over-the-top language, should recognise that things have changed quite a lot in the past 50 or 60 years.
When trade unions choose to go on strike, it is often other workers who are adversely affected by the industrial action. The Conservatives are a party of workers, which is why we have committed ourselves to introducing a national living wage, to increasing the tax allowance for the lowest earners so that they can earn money tax free, and to providing people with free childcare. As part of that commitment to workers, we also need to think about the impact of strikes on other workers.
Let me give the House an example from my constituency. If a teachers’ strike is called, it is other workers who feel the consequences. The working lives of the mums and dads are disrupted. They have to pay for alternative childcare and go through the stress and hassle of not being able to pick up their children from school and not knowing who will do so. It is right that we should balance the interests of the two groups of workers.
Saying that strikes are disruptive is not an argument against trade unions. They are meant to cause some kind of disruption, in order to show how strongly people feel and the lengths they are prepared to go to.
Of course strikes are intended to be disruptive, but one of the fallacies that has been put forward by Labour Members is that the Bill proposes to take away people’s right to strike. It simply seeks to balance the interests of the workers in the trade union against those of other workers who are subjected to the effects of the strike.
Is the hon. Gentleman aware that the chief executive of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development has suggested that the Bill is dealing with problems of the past and has nothing to do with the current situation?
The hon. Lady might say that, but recent analysis shows that in the past four years, 3 million days have been lost to strike action. I am not content with the impact of that on my constituents. Hertsmere is close to London, and when there is a tube strike or a train strike, my constituents are massively adversely affected. I am not saying that that should never happen, but the Bill will rightly set a balance in three important respects.
First, the Bill states that if a strike is to be called, there will have to be a vote of at least 50% in favour of it. If the strike action is to be taken by those working in core public services, such as transport or education, four out of every 10 people in that union will have to vote in favour of it. Contrary to the assertions of Labour Members, this will not stop strikes happening. Indeed, the latest analysis shows that between 50% and 60% of strikes would still go ahead under the new legislation, but we must rebalance the interests of the workers who are trying to serve their communities with those who are going on strike.
The second important principle relates to workers in my constituency and elsewhere who are members of trade unions but who do not necessarily share the goals of the Labour party.
Many of the hon. Gentleman’s colleagues have made that same point about strike ballots, using the transport strikes in London as an illustration. The truth is, however, that the legislation will not make any difference. The ballots held by ASLEF and the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers have huge turnouts, and their members are expressing legitimate concerns about safety and manning levels that many of the travelling public share. I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman has used the tube recently, but the stations are being denuded of the human beings who used to be there to offer assistance. This measure will do nothing to help that position. In fact, it will make matters worse.
Labour Members cannot have their cake and eat it. They cannot simultaneously say that this is an horrendous piece of legislation that will stop all strike action while also saying that it will have no effect. The hon. Gentleman should choose one line of argument or the other. Teachers would certainly be subject to the legislation, and their last strike would have been affected by measures such as these.
I was talking about people in my constituency who are members of trade unions. There are important reasons for being a member of a union. For people who are the subject of unfair dismissal, for example, a trade union can often be a good source of advice and information. People join unions for a variety of reasons, but they often do not wish to give money to the Labour party. There should be a simple principle that if a union wishes to give the party money, its members should be able actively to choose to do so, in much the same way as if they were making a direct donation to the party. I see no unfairness in that. I am simply saying that if people support the Labour party, they should be able to choose to give it money.
Thirdly, the Bill works to redress the balance between striking and non-striking workers through the proposals to minimise the disruption caused by strike action. It is perfectly sensible to require 14 days’ notice of a strike. It would also be sensible, for example, that if the teachers at my daughter’s school were to go on strike, agency workers could be brought in so that my children’s education would not be disrupted. Similarly, it would be sensible to bring in agency workers so that commuters from my constituency would not be disrupted by a transport strike. That would not be cost-free to the employer, who would have to pay high rates to employ agency workers at short notice. Interestingly, given where the Labour party is at this stage, Labour Members have a choice: are they going to embrace the modern world and be on the side of workers—people in their constituencies who go out to work every day and do not want to be disrupted —or are they going to go back to the same old arguments that we thought had been settled 20 or 30 years ago? Interestingly, the measures taken then have never been repealed by the Labour party. I am absolutely clear which side I am on and which side the Conservative party is on. We are on the side of ordinary, hard-working people, while maintaining the right to strike. That is why I shall be voting in favour of this legislation.
Order. Just to try to ensure that everybody gets in, with 46 speakers still to come, we are going to have to work with four minutes each. If we can hold to that, we will be doing very well.
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for calling me to take part in this important debate. It has been interesting listening to the contributions of other hon. Members and, in particular, to the excellent speech made by my hon. Friend Chris Stephens. I hope to make a contribution from a slightly different perspective from that of some of my colleagues today. Before being elected to this place, I spent all my career working in human resource management. In the interests of transparency, I should say that I am a member of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development. I worked for many years in a job where I sat as part of the management side in negotiations with trade unions, so I come to this debate with an outlook developed at least partly as a result of my professional background. I am contributing as someone who has had to make difficult decisions when dealing with challenging employment issues, including collective redundancy negotiations and industrial action.
I also come here, however, as someone who knows that the most challenging situations and all the difficult discussions were entirely more productive and more effective, and carried more weight, because they were dealt with in partnership with trade unions. I did not always agree with my trade union counterparts, and they certainly did not always agree with me, but that is surely the point: sometimes there will be different perspectives, and that is entirely healthy and appropriate. It is clear that when tough decisions have to be made, communication is the key to an effective and productive workplace culture. We do need to accept, however, that occasionally we will not agree, no matter how much discussion we have had—that is a fact of life—and no Bill will make employers and staff agree on everything.
What this Bill will do is: ensure that any disagreement is squashed by management, without any constructive dialogue; render any dialogue that there is futile; and ensure that the important and constructive voices of staff are lost, drowned in a welter of arguments about minutiae of process or brushed aside. This Bill is a recipe for turning disagreement into conflict, and for escalating a short-term problem into a fundamental break in relationships in the workplace. Interfering in the employment relationship with this restrictive and provocative Bill is a backward step. It appears to be driven more by ideology, and by malice towards trade unions and their members, than by any desire to improve industrial relations.
We have already heard about the leading academics in industrial relations who wrote to the newspapers describing the proposals as “draconian” and “perverse”. They recognise the positive contributions of unions to performance, improvement and innovation in the workplace, and they decry the Government’s proposals as undermining the ability of unions to protect terms and conditions, and leading to the loss of employee voice. They are right to point out that this Bill will also have an impact on those who are not members of trade unions. They say that
“it will feed into the labour market by increasing endemic low pay and insecure terms and conditions of employment among non-unionised workers.”
Even the Chancellor is now persuaded that low pay is a problem that we have to grapple with, so we must wonder why the Government are so keen to introduce this Bill. If they were serious about looking at the relationships between employees and their representatives, they would focus on how to engage and involve employees and unions in increasing productivity, through fairer and supportive rights for workers. If we look at the current levels of industrial action, as summarised by the Library, we see that it is difficult to fathom what reasons, other than ideological ones, the Government can possibly have for seeking to make these changes. The Government sell themselves as being interested in productivity and business, but these proposals run entirely contrary to that ethos. The Bill introduces unnecessary new and complex bureaucracy: it will increase costs for unions and employers, as legal disputes develop; and it undermines social justice. If this Bill is passed, and I sincerely hope that it is not—
It is a great pleasure to follow Kirsten Oswald. I am delighted to have been able to sit through this debate, because once one gets over the bluster and extreme rhetoric one sees that points have been made by Members on both sides that will be helpful to the Minister in examining the Bill in detail as he takes it into Committee. We have heard about the Bill’s importance for union leadership, for union members and, most importantly, for the public as a whole, but I come to this House with a background in business, so I wish to make a couple of comments from its perspective.
The issues that affect people in a strike come from a breakdown in a partnership between those who operate businesses and the people who work within them. The most important criterion for business is that private sector businesses have benefited tremendously from a 30-year consensus on the way in which industrial relations have operated in this country. It is therefore important for business to hear from this House today that that consensus, on both sides of the House, both today and in the months ahead, is continuing as far as it can.
Secondly, it is important to point out the difference between what has occurred during that period of consensus in the private sector and what has happened in the public sector. In the last four years of the last millennium—1996 to 1999—there were 199,000 days lost from private sector strikes, compared with 278,000 from public sector strikes. In the past four years—2010 to 2014—the number for the private sector had more than halved, to 74,000, whereas the figure for the public sector had more than doubled, to 573,000. Something in this consensus is working in the private sector but not working so well in the public sector. A particular issue is that in three of the past five years one area of the public sector, education, accounted for more than 50% of public sector strikes.
I ask the Minister to consider some specific points. First, on the issue of the 40% additional threshold. I am pleased that the Government are looking at consultation, but the points made about the ability of the union leadership to control and minimise wildcat strikes do carry quite a weight. It would be interesting for the Minister to consider whether the notice period of 14 days before strike action will achieve most of the goals that are seen as required for that 40% threshold. May I encourage the Minister to include in clause 6(1), on information to the certification officer, a provision about the outcome of the industrial action? That information is useful for members, too. If they are asked to go on strike, they should know what the consequence of the strike was—what they achieved by it—so they can see whether such action is playing a good role.
There are extensive new roles for the certification officer, and business would like to be assured that this will not lead to additional disclosure requirements on business in the future. An industrial dispute still has two sides; one may be out on strike but the other side is dealing with that strike. We are placing information requirements on the trade union, but will there be a need for any similar information requirements on or disclosure by business?
Finally, on privacy and free speech, will the ministerial team listen carefully to the points that have been made, because we do not want trade unionists going about their business in towns across the country inadvertently finding themselves criminalised? I am sure that that, on its own, would undermine the consensus. I hope the Minister will examine those points carefully in Committee.
This is a Bill of naked discrimination against the trade unions, designed to cut the funding of the Labour party severely and, thus, to entrench the Tory party in power, as well as to make it almost impossible to strike in certain industrial sectors. However, it is worth quoting the stated purposes of the Bill, which the Government pretend are their motives. The first is to
“pursue our ambition to become the most prosperous major economy in the world by 2030”.
That is beyond satire. The truth is that after seven years of austerity following the great crash wages are still 6% below pre-crash levels, productivity is flat, the FTSE 100 companies are not investing and household debt is now tipping £2 trillion. The idea that after this Bill we will be overtaking Germany and the United States in the next 15 years is ludicrous.
The Government’s second “reason” for this Bill is to
“ensure hardworking people are not disrupted by little-supported strike action”.
“Strike action, fox hunting, the BBC, Europe, migrant benefits. The Tory ability to identify things that are not problems, then attack them.”
The truth is that the number of days lost to strike action now is less than one tenth of what it was in the 1980s. Of far greater importance to the state of the economy is the chronic underinvestment in skills. This Bill, while obnoxious, is utterly irrelevant to the key problems of this country. The tube workers aside, only teachers and firefighters have caused any real national concern since 2010, and even they normally did so only one day at a time. Even the resistance of the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers to plans for keeping the underground open all night are not that unreasonable. Night shifts are unsociable, unhealthy and potentially dangerous as they lead to over-tiredness. But the central point here is not acknowledged in the Bill. The Government seem to believe that whenever a strike occurs, it is always the fault of the workers irrespective of what the employer has done.
It is true that most employers are probably decent and reasonable, but there are a distinct minority of them who are intransigent and who behave thoroughly unreasonably and badly. To penalise and intimidate workers in such cases, when it is the employer who has overwhelmingly caused the breakdown in industrial relations, is wholly unfair and wrong. The last thing that the workers want to do is to go on strike, but when they have genuine, reasonable and pressing demands over such essential issues such as job losses, safety problems and pay, and those demands are swept to one side, as they often are, with little or no negotiation, they have no alternative but to take industrial action. To blame and penalise them and not bad management, as the Tory party and its pals in the media automatically do, is a total charade. The conditions for industrial action are prohibitive. The net effect of all these measures is to make it impossible to strike.
I was there in the 1980s, studying at the London School of Economics—the so-called hotbed of socialism. I had the T-shirt that proclaimed, “The LSE is revolting”. Today, we see that those on the left are at it again. They love a revolution, but this time they could not even convince their Front-Bench Members—well, they are on the Front Bench now—to follow them. Saturday’s leadership election result underlined the fact that the policies of Labour’s new Front-Bench team are a clear threat not only to our national security but to our economic recovery. With the increase in union influence that will inevitably follow, this Trade Union Bill will be more relevant than ever before, and I commend the foresight of those Ministers who drafted it.
I understand that unions have an important role to play in the workplace for their regular members. That was clearly evident in Bosley, following a pretty tragic explosion on
We on the Conservative Benches pledged in our manifesto to tackle this issue, and I am pleased that the Conservative Government have put this Bill before the House so speedily. Clause 2 introduces a 50% voting threshold, which is essential to ensure that a small vocal minority is not able to exert undue influence in often quite tense industrial disputes. It is right that there is a second test, particularly in the more essential public services. Disproportionate disruption can be caused to people who have no say in the calling of that strike. It is important that we ensure that the rights of those who use the service—the public—are taken into account just as much as those who are calling the strike, particularly given the recent tube strikes. Alan Johnson talked about inconvenience of the strike, but the truth was that there was massive disruption that cost tens, if not hundreds, of millions of pounds. Such things need to be borne in the mind and dealt with, which is what this Bill seeks to do.
We need to look at minimum service levels. I understand that the Government are looking at the experiences in Italy and Spain, and I encourage them to take that matter forward. It is positive too that we are looking to end the ban on using agency workers. We must ensure that public services are provided for those who have paid for them—the taxpayer. This Bill will help to take our economy forward, and for that reason it has my full support this evening.
I declare my interest as a member of Unite the union. The Bill exposes the Government’s self-appointed title as the workers’ party and their claim to be the party for working people as little more than empty rhetoric devised by the spin doctors at Tory HQ. It is a total misnomer to claim to be the party for working people while simultaneously steamrolling over those very workers’ democratic rights and civil liberties.
Last year, Pope Francis said:
“Trade unions have been an essential force for social progress, without which a semblance of a decent and humane society is impossible under capitalism.”
The trade union movement in the UK, independent of the Labour party and with the Labour party, is responsible for the fundamental gains of working people, many of which we now take for granted, including the weekend, maternity leave, the national health service and the national minimum wage.
The role of trade unions in society as a counterweight to the pressures of capital is essential for the protection of decent standards of living as well as a driver of economic growth. That was true in the 19th century and the 20th century and it is true now.
The Government are carrying out this attack on trade unions not for practical reasons supported by evidence, but out of their ideological commitment to fighting the battles of generations past and to pursuing their mission to weaken and destroy the labour and trade union movement. Let us make no mistake about it, the purpose of requiring union members to opt-in to political funds is to attack and damage the finances of the Labour party so as to make the Conservative party’s financial advantage even greater than it already is. If this Bill passes, it would break a long-standing consensus in British politics that the Government should not introduce partisan legislation unfairly to disadvantage other political parties. Here in this House in 1948 Winston Churchill cautioned against taking such steps. He said:
“It has become a well-established custom that matters affecting the interests of rival parties should not be settled by the imposition of the will of one side over the other, but by an agreement reached either between the leaders of the main parties or by conferences under the impartial guidance of Mr. Speaker.”—[Hansard, 16 February 1948; Vol. 447, c. 859.]
Even Margaret Thatcher, a Prime Minister whose term was defined by her opposition to the trade union movement, considered the proposals such as the ones set out in this Bill to be too extreme. She said that
“legislation on this subject, which would affect the funding of the Labour party, would create great unease and should not be entered into lightly.”
She was not wrong. This Bill will create great unease and for once in my life I find myself in total agreement with Mrs T.
These proposals are so unreasonable and extreme that they will undoubtedly raise the serious prospect of legal challenge. The interference of the state in the affairs of trade unions is counter to article 11 of the European convention on human rights. We are signatories to the European social charter and as a nation we agreed in article 5 that our national laws would not restrict the freedom of workers to form and join organisations for the protection of their economic and social interests. The Bill directly contravenes our country’s commitment under the charter.
Our rights were not handed down from above; they were fought for tooth and nail, often against Conservative Governments. Government Members should be aware that those rights will not be given up easily. If the Government continue with their authoritarian plan to abuse their time in office by attacking our democratic rights, they would be wise to remember that for every action there is a reaction. I hope that wiser counsel from their Back Benches will prevail in bringing their Front Benchers back from the brink.
This is a vindictive Bill that is designed not to address a social, moral or economic priority, but to fundamentally damage political opposition. It is more than a step too far. If the Government do not reconsider—
The history of trade unions is an honourable one, arising in the late 19th century, when workers were suffering from widespread oppression. Throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries, trade unions performed vital functions. It is worth remembering, of course, that many of those functions are now fulfilled by Parliament; it has legislated for a national minimum wage, provision for sickness and holiday payments, protection against unfair dismissal and so on. Therefore, many of the injustices that trade unions quite rightly fought against at the outset have now been dealt with by Parliament. I want to emphasise that the right to strike and the right for trade unions to operate are in no way threatened by the Bill. The right to strike will still exist, as it absolutely should.
The hon. Member for Middlesbrough and Alan Johnson both asked the question, “What is the purpose of this legislation?” Its principal purpose is to protect people who suffer when strikes take place. Let me quote a lady from Stoke-on-Trent who runs a hairdressing salon and has a child:
“It isn’t fair on parents, who could be missing out on a day’s pay by not working when teachers strike.”
Strikes have a profound effect on other members of society, which is why it is appropriate to put in place a reasonable threshold before strike action can be taken. For example, exactly a year ago Unison’s NHS staff voted for strike action on a turnout of 16% and with 11% of the membership voting in favour. I do not think that mandate is strong enough to merit inconveniencing tens of thousands of patients and potentially having operations postponed.